Atlas3

Atlas Shrugged: Part III 2014. 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)

“Who is John Galt?” For those of you who have never attempted the not-so-modest-feat of reading conservative icon Ayn Rand’s mammoth philosophical novel, Atlas Shrugged, or read it decades back in college as some sort of political science requirement towards course completion, you know the answer to that question. But for the general public, whose only knowledge of Ayn Rand’s personal philosophy, “Objectivism” (in essence the idea that men and women should be entirely free of governmental interference in their commercial and daily pursuits so as each to reach his or her maximum personal potential) is the distilled and diluted version of the brand served up by Fox News and right wing advocates such as Paul Ryan, it’s doubtful if viewers lacking the backdrop of the novel will understand who the hell John Galt is.

Here’s my take on this film (as an entirety and Part III in particular): Ayn Rand deserves better. The final installment of this sacred tome of the Right is the worst of the lot in terms of editing, story, message, and pace. It is essentially a series of excerpted speeches, with little to no action, from the last third of the novel, making for dull cinema and duller philosophy. It’s also confusing that we are now on actor and actress number three for the two seminal roles of the film, John Galt (here, Chris Polaha) and Dagny Taggart (Laura Regan), the previous two incarnations of those characters no longer viable either due to monetary constraints or artistic differences, which makes trying to watch all three portions of this story in one sitting schizophrenic at best. That having been said, both Polaha and Regan are fine in their parts. Not exceptional but fine. There are a few recognizable faces, including character actor Joaquim de Almeida (portraying copper magnet Francisco d’Anconia) but most of the actors and actresses filling the various key roles in Rand’s story are unrecognizable by viewers; a collection of third and fourth tier performers who are, by and large, utterly forgettable in their roles. But back to my main premise. The book is held by many on the Right to be a Bible (though of course Rand was an atheist who despised religion of all stripes making Atlas a curious reference for the Evangelical Christians now commanding the GOP) of human political, sociological, and philosophical aspirations: the triumph of individual talent and will over the collective power of society. There’s little question that the backers of this effort sought to have an influence on the past three national elections by the timing of the releases of Parts I, II, and III. Though Part I came out too late to influence the 2010 campaign season; Part II was released in 2012 in advance of the Presidential election. Part III was issued in limited release in 2014, just ahead of the congressional elections that returned the GOP to power. With such high minded influence as its goal, one would have thought that the backers of this mess of a franchise would have sought top-notch talent in the acting, directing, and scriptwriting departments so as to ensure gracing Rand’s time-honored prose with the movie she so clearly deserves. But the Koch Brothers apparently weren’t on board and their wallets did not fund this effort. Too bad. Love Rand’s message or hate it, she deserved a movie equal in power to her words.

2 stars out of 5. If you want to watch a movie that replicates the intricacies of Rand’s ideas and also entertains, pick up a DVD copy of The Fountainhead strarring Gary Cooper. You can read my review of that film, along with Atlas Shrugged Parts I and II, in the archives section of this blog under the “Reviews” tab on the website dashboard above.

 

West

The West Wing: The Complete Series (2006. Warner Brothers DVD)

All summer. My wife Rene’ and I spent all summer with President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet and his constantly evolving staff. 154 episodes spanning the years 1999-2006. A popular culture time capsule of American political thought as seen from the left of center. From the opening sequences of the pilot, where the POTUS (President of the United States) slams into a tree riding a bicycle, to the ending show, when another man is sworn in to replace Jed in the White House, this was and is one amazing television series. Watching it serially, without commercial interruption, is a rich viewing experience, a reminder of just how good some of our best network television can be.

According to IMDB, the independent gatekeeper for all things media, only four actors graced every episode of the series:

Allison Janney, who played White House Press Secretary (and later Chief of Staff) C.J. Cregg;

John Spencer, who played the original Chief of Staff and Bartlet’s right hand man, Leo McGarry*;

Bradley Whitford, who played Deputy Chief of Staff and chief politico, Josh Lyman (and who ends up running Matt Santos’s campaign for president); and

Martin Sheen, who played former New Hampshire Governor and President Bartlet.

Other actors you might recognize who had major roles over the course of the series include Stockard Channing, Alan Alda, Jimmy Smits, Richard Schiff, Dule’ Hill, Mark Harmon, John Amos, and Rob Lowe. From top to bottom, the acting, directing, and screenwriting of virtually every episode of this titanic effort, led by screenwriters including Aaron Sorkin, Lawrence O’Donnell and Bradley Whitford, with technical assistance from former Clinton staffer Dee Dee Myers, is very simply the best you will see in a network series. Regardless of your political affiliation, the players in this series, from the every day household staff to the folks who play the secret service agents, bring it home every episode, whether the topic is domestic or international. The President’s failure to disclose his MS. A near assassination attempt. Terrorist acts, foreign and domestic. They are all intricate panels in the tapestry of a fictional presidency brought to life against the backdrop of Islamist Jihad and 9/11. Sheen simply is the president: no other actor could have played the part with such grace, nuance, style, and honesty. He is the core of the troupe and sets an example of excellence which compels those around him to elevate their games.

The candidacy of Democratic Congressman Matt Santos for the presidency takes up a good deal of the last two years of the series. Santos, played by Jimmy Smits (of NYPD Blue fame), is a forty-something Hispanic father, husband, and FDR Liberal from Texas. His electoral foe is Arnold Vinick, a middle-of-the road, pro-choice Republican battling not only Santos but the right wing of his own party. Played admirably by Alan Alda, the aging, weary Vinick seems a not-so-subtle symbol for the present-day GOP. In a splendidly realistic turn, Smits and Alda were asked to do an entire hour show live, as if their debate before a national television audience was the real deal. It is one of the highlights of the seven seasons of the show. To see two great actors go toe to toe in front a live audience in one take, well, that’s simply a remarkable piece of film that should be studied by television directors and actors for years to come.

Rene’ and I were saddened when our time with the Bartlets and the other characters in this fine dramatic series came to an end. Given the atmosphere in our politics and the trend to air quality dramatic shows on cable channels, it’s doubtful anything like West Wing will ever air on commercial television again.

5 stars out of 5.

Mark

* The McGarry character suffered a heart attack during season six and that’s what prompted the Cregg character to be elevated to Chief of Staff. In real life, actor John Spencer had a fatal heart attack during the show’s final season, life mimicking art in a tragic way. The nature of how the series dealt with the passing of Leo McGarry was both nuanced and caring, displaying the obvious love the other actors had for their fallen comrade. If you want to see Spencer at his best on the big screen, check out his role in Presumed Innocent with Harrison Ford.

 

 

 

I received a gift in the mail recently. Imagine my surprise when the mailman, who refuses to get out of his car because of the three Labradors and one Dauschund patrolling our property, showed up with a package for me. I find it puzzling that the mailman (who’s supposed to deliver rain, snow, or dead of night) won’t get out of his car to make a delivery due to the dogs but the UPS and Fed X guys have no problem interacting with our pooches. Toss ’em a treat and they’re pretty much ready to follow you home. But apparently the USPS doesn’t have a budget for doggie snacks. So it goes. Anyway, I just happened to be there when the guy pulled into the yard with the package.

“I’ve got a parcel too big to put in the mailbox,” he said from safely within his SUV.

I thanked him for driving in and accepted the package. The dogs sat looking expectantly as the car drove off. I went back into the house and opened the padded mailer and found a DVD from the Listening Point Foundation, a group whose primary goal is to preserve the lakeside cabin and conservation legacy of Minnesota outdoor writer, Sigurd Olson of Ely. I can’t remember if I’ve ever actually sent a donation to the Foundation. I’ve attended at least one of their fund raisers up in Ely and contacted them awhile back about donating some of my books for their silent auction. Don’t remember if we ever connected on my offer. In any event, I popped the DVD in my computer at work during lunch. Turns out, it was one of better lunches I’ve spent by myself in quite a while. Well, that’s not really true. I mean, yes, in the physical sense, as I sat at my desk watching the film, “The Wilderness World of Sigurd F. Olson”, I was the only person actually present. But there, on film, talking about conservation and writing and wilderness were Sig and his wife, Elizabeth. The short (28 minute) documentary is, as stated by a reviewer on the packaging, “not a biography in the strict sense.” The narrative is not a linear, birth-to-death rendition of one man’s life. It’s more a taste, a sampling, of the places and influences and people that allowed Sig Olson, at  age 57 to finally realize his dream of being a published author. Like Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It), Sig Olson worked at writing for decades before he found his voice, before he was a commercial success. He reiterates this theme time and time again in both the film and the audio interview clips that are extras on the disk. Perseverance rather than mere talent is the hallmark of a career in writing according to the sage of Ely. Here are a couple snippets from the audio reflections of an accomplished writer and author.

Becoming a writer is a long, difficult process. The first step is, you must want to write…

Now that sounds cliche’, too simple an admonition. But time and time again I’ve had folks approach me at writerly events and tell me, “Oh, I have a story I’d love to write. I just don’t have time. Maybe when I retire…” I smile and, hopefully, like Sig, I give them the benefit of the doubt. But the truth is, that, if I can find the time to write raising four sons, being a husband, teaching confirmation, working full time, coaching soccer and hockey, and taking care of 135 acres of woods, anyone can. The issue isn’t time: it’s desire. The “want” of Sig’s simple sentence is far more complicated than it appears.

In another excerpt, Sig responds to the interviewer’s observation that to write, one needs an internal desire or “pressure” to exert itself, to cause the act of writing. Sig agrees. The writer can’t rely on an outside influence, such as a publisher or agent or money, to push the writer to write.

You’ve got to have that pressure within you for you to write…

And as I indicated, Sig is very modest about his late-in-life commercial success as an author. This ties into my observation, one shared, I think, by Sig, that a writer’s greatest attribute isn’t necessarily talent. It’s perseverance.

In my own case, success in writing was a long time coming. I keep all my rejection slips, of which I have millions.

There’s a lot more to the audio clips than reflections on writing, including campfire conversations, discussion of place, and short interviews about Sig’s fervent belief in the value of wilderness. Writing right up until his death while snowshoeing in the woods surrounding his Ely home at the age of 82, Sig was able, despite the lateness of public recognition, to not only piece together a credible career as an outdoor writer: he was a leader in the conservation movement with respect to the establishment and preservation of both the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageur’s National Park, two gems of conservation ethic in NE Minnesota. He was and is a man worthy of emulation.

You can find out more about the Listening Point Foundation at:

http://listeningpointfoundation.org/.

 

And if you are an artist, writer, or conservationist of any stripe, you can order a copy of the DVD for $15.00 at:

http://listeningpointfoundation.org/shop/.

You won’t be disappointed.

Peace.

Mark

 

The Shield: The Complete Series Collection (2009. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.)

I wasn’t able to watch more than a handful of the episodes of this groundbreaking series on FX because my wife is not a fan of violence. Neither am I. I see little value in the Quentin Tarantino version of life: sex, grit, hatred, and methodical killing, as depicted in Pulp Fiction. I wish I had been able to convince my wife Rene’ that The Shield was a different sort of “bad cop” show, a Shakespearean enterprise of high art and great acting. I was never able to do that so, as I said, the few episodes I was able to watch were cherished moments spent with Vic, Lem, Ronny, and Shane, the four members of the Strike Force, a unit of anti-gang cops housed in the fictional LA precinct of Farmington.

My fortunes changed when my son Dylan surprised me this past Christmas with the entire series. 4,100 minutes of blood, guts, sweat, tears, sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll featuring probably one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled for a television series. Not convinced? Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey gives a consistently believable, tough yet nuanced performance as the titular head of the Strike Team which inhabits “The Barn”, an old evangelical church in Farmington turned police headquarters. Walton Goggins hits every note as the troubled, sociopathic Shane Vendrell. They are joined by series regular C.C. Pounder playing a mid-career African American woman put in charge of The Barn while battling lupus, Michael Jace, as Julian, a homosexual African American line officer trying to play it straight on the force and in his marriage, Jay Karnes as the troubled intellectual detective Holland Wagenbach who has a penchant for discovering serial killers, Cathy Cahlin Ryan, who portrays Vic’s long suffering wife and the mother of three kids, two of whom are afflicted with autism, and Catherine Dent, as  Vic’s one-time love interest and tough as nails female beat cop. If that’s not enough, add to these fine actors and actresses,  Academy Award winner Forrest Whittaker as the IAD cop trying to take down Mackey and crew, six-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close, who lasted a season as C.C. Pounder’s predecessor, and Anthony Anderson who portrays street thug turned man of peace (oh yeah, I buy that!) and you have the makings of a cast, as I’ve stated, unequaled in television history.

I watched this series from beginning to end as I recovered from shoulder surgery and started working out on the treadmill in the master bedroom of our house. My wife was happy with this arrangement, though, as I’ve stated, I think she would have come around to being mesmerized by the storyline and acting of this fine cop show as I did. This is the show that, with Homicide Life on the Streets actor-turned-director Clark Johnson at the helm, and a great team of writers, took the production and story values of Homicide and NYPD Blue, mixed in the tragedy of good cops corrupted by power, a heavy dose of human nature, and created one of the strongest series in television history over its seven years of existence. Truly, there isn’t a weak episode or season in this package. And to be clear, no other actor could have portrayed Vic Mackey. Forget Michael Chiklis on the tepid new series Vegas ( alas, I had high hopes but my sons are right: it’s a dog), or in his comic book spin as The Thing, or his first series work in the uninspired The Commish. Chiklis is Vic Mackey and no matter what else he does in his acting career, that should be enough.

5 stars out of 5. A must see from beginning to end.

Atlas Shrugged (Part II) (2012. 20th Century Fox)

Mmmm. How does an uber Liberal review the second part of a three part movie based upon Ayn Rand’s 1200 page, 3 pound tome, a book that defies definition, categorization, or literary description? Well, my reviews of Atlas Shrugged Part I (the movie, reviewed here), and Atlas Shrugged (the novel, reviewed for Amazon and not this site), and The Fountainhead (movie and book, both reviewed here) haven’t landed my name on any of Sarah Palin’s political hit lists. So here goes.

When you switch up every actor playing ever character in the second part of a three part movie, that’s not good. Heck, even with my political leanings, I can be a fair evaluator of a right-wing movie spouting Paul Ryan-type personal responsibility political philosophy. Want proof? I rated Shrugged I 4 stars out of 5. So check my record, ye who would cast the first stone. I can be, to use Ms. Rand’s own term, “objective”.

Let’s start with the main character, Dagney Taggart, likely the sort of no-holds-bar female entrepreneur who gives Donny Trump a woody. Taylor Schilling played the part of Dagney in Shrugged I about as well as it can be played and still maintain a straight face, given the dialogue and the plot. Samantha Mathis, Schilling’s replacement, just doesn’t have the same screen presence, the required beauty plus fortitude that Schilling conveyed in the first installment of the film. This criticism extends to all of the new actors and actresses in the second part of the movie except one: Esai Morales is a fine choice to portray South American copper baron, Francisco d’Anconia. He is the one improvement in an other wise dull and fairly listless cast of replacements.

The CG scenes are adequate, though when compared to other recent films where CG is amazing (such as Life of Pi) the inferiority of the production values in Shrugged II becomes apparent. Most of the other staging and scenery fits the movie but it’s not striking or awe inspiring or amazing: It’s just good enough.

And that is the real disappointment for me, a crazy Liberal who “gets” Objectivism. Or least understands who Ayn Rand was and why she believed what she believed. Rand, to this day, in the person of Rep. Paul Ryan and other devotees of her creed, remains a powerful force in American politics and philosophy. A writer of such import deserves a movie equal to her stature. That’s why Gary Cooper’s portrayal in the movie made of Rand’s other major work, The Fountainhead, was so well received. Whether you believe Rand’s view of human nature or not, she was an important enough thinker to demand actors of stature (and a director like King Vidor who filmed The Fountainhead) make a movie from her prose. Shrugged II, while modestly entertaining, doesn’t come close.

That having been said, here’s hoping the producers of the final part of this massive work either go back to the first cast (to improve the acting) or keep everyone from the second installment, as flat as they may be, so Shrugged III has some consistency to it.

3 stars out of 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Payback at Morning Peak by Gene Hackman (2011. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4516-2356-7)

I was sitting at my little table in the Grand Rapids, MN Mall selling books to strangers outside of Village Books when I spied Payback at Morning Peak on the remainder table. Every title on the table was five bucks, even newer releases. When I saw this Western had been written by one of the best known character actors of our time, well, I had to give it a read. I’d heard  somewhere that Academy Award winning actor Hackman (French Connection and Unforgiven) was also an author. My supposition was that, if someone is talented enough to star in over eighty movies, well then, he or she might just be creative enough to pull off a good yarn as a writer. And so, I laid my money down and gave Payback at Morning Peak a try.

There are so many things wrong with this effort, where to begin? The best that can be said about the plot of Payback is that it’s an updating of the revenge scenario that drove a very good performance by Steve McQueen in the 1966 classic Western, Nevada Smith. Hackman, himself a contemporary of McQueen’s and a star of several Westerns during his own film career, retired from acting after 2004 (bowing out after the silly and pointless Welcome to Mooseport) seems to have chosen the revenge theme of Nevada Smith but that’s about where the similarities end.

Jubal Young, a seventeen-year-old doesn’t compare favorably as a hero to Max Sands, the part played by McQueen. Why? Well, the suspension of disbelief, the core task of any fiction writer in taking a fantasy and making it seem real, begins and ends with the believability of its hero or heroine. In this tale, Jubal is said to have essentially borrowed his father’s .22 lever action rifle for the first time to hunt rabbits, when, upon returning to his family’s ranch, he sees his father, mother, and sister being killed by a group of thugs. Despite little back story as to Jubal’s prowess as a sharpshooter, and despite the fact that a .22 rifle makes a poor choice of weapon for long distance sniping, Jubal proceeds to take out some of the bad guys from a distance with impunity. But it gets worse. What follows is a convoluted, difficult to follow scene where the desperadoes  chase the young lad up Morning Peak only to fall (pardon the pun) for a ruse Jubal has concocted to do them in. Later, after the teenager finds his father’s pistol in the ruins of the family farmhouse, he becomes not only an instant marksman with the .22: He bests grown men who’ve made their livings using six guns as meal tickets when metal slaps leather and gunfights erupt.

But there’s more that ails this story than simply plot implausibilities. The dialogue is clunky and forced; the characters are thinly drawn and cartoonish; and the interaction between Jubal and his adult peers in the story seems extremely unlikely given the history and background of Jubal’s character as supplied by the author.

There’s no question that, if Gene Hackman actually sat at the computer to create this story (I’m hoping he did: pity the ghostwriter who cobbled together this mess) he has passable skills as a writer of the English language. The narrative portions of the book, while unmoving and lacking real insight or empathy or pathos, aren’t offensive and, in terms of description, admirably capture the high country of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado where the story is set. Hackman is an observer of the world and it shines through in his ability to depict scenes in his backyard. But he is, sad to say, no storyteller when it comes to writing fiction.

In the end, while Welcome to Mooseport wasn’t Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it was entertaining and a coherent, if silly and forgettable, movie. Payback at Morning Peak is unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. It’s telling that none of the blurbs on the back cover of the novel are about this effort, but about Mr. Hackman’s past writing efforts. Sadly, given my disappointment after spending time with Jubal Young, I won’t be reading any other novels by Popeye Doyle.

2 stars out of 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flight (2012. Paramount Pictures)

The title of this review says it all. But if you’re looking for a “feel good” movie that makes you all warm and fuzzy and settled inside, this is not the movie for you. But if you’re interested in seeing one of America’s greatest living actors give a stellar performance, playing, not as in the past, the suffering hero (Man on Fire) or a complete scum bag (Training Day), someone approaching an ordinary human being cast into an extraordinary situation, well then, this movie’s for you.

Denzel Washington will be nominated for another academy award for best actor due to his great performance in this film. But the actor who steals every scene he’s in (though he’s on screen for only a few minutes in total) is John Goodman, the drug dealing, fast talking, conspiracy theory side kick to Washington’s pilot character, Whip Whitaker. Think Johnny Fever on cocaine with a beer belly and you’ve got Goodman’s role in this film pretty much figured out, though the big man makes taking drugs as therapy for the human condition almost, well, joyful.

The first five minutes of the film, we see a very lovely Nadine Velazquez (in the guise of flight attendant Katerina Marquez) in the all together after a night of binging and coke sniffing with Whitaker. For my three sons and I (we all booked from the house while my wife and daughter-in-law had some sort of bag and clothing sale going on involving cheese, wine, and the spending of money on a rainy Saturday afternoon)  that was a bit of a distraction. But a pleasant one, I’ll assure you. And then the roller coaster that is Whip Whitaker’s shattered life begins. And what a ride it is.

Bruce Greenwood plays the union representative of Whip’s pilots’ union with steadfast thoroughness and Don Cheadle (himself an Oscar winner for Hotel Rwanda) is admirably able as the union lawyer who, after Whip successfully lands a poorly maintained jet liner and saves over 90 souls, tries to protect Whip’s career (seems that flying at a .24 is as frowned upon as driving in that condition; never mind the cocaine in Whip’s system).

In addition, the love story between two wrecked human beings (Whip and a mainlining heroin junkie played with great skill by Kelly Riley) is satisfying and has the ring of realism as the two negotiate a path between self-destruction and healing.

All in all, a fine film.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far from Heaven (2003. Universal. DVD version)

Menard’s. Who’dve thought I’d find a compelling and touching movie walking through Menard’s on a Saturday night looking for a new caulking gun and caulk? Well, I did. I also found my wife an anniversary card at the same time! Now that’s quick thinking, fellows. I mean, finding a great date movie and a card to save my ass in a lumber and hardware store is, in my humble male mind, a stroke of rarefied genius. Enough about how smart I am. On to the movie.

I’ve loved Julianne Moore since Boogie Nights. There are few mainstream actresses willing to use nudity and sex in the way that Moore does and can. She’s seemingly unabashed about playing characters and disrobing whether playing a porn star or later-in-life lesbian (The Kids are Alright). And, until I read her bio online, I’d forgotten she convincingly played the grieving mother in the film version of my favorite Jane Hamilton novel, A Map of the World. Anyway, in Far from Heaven, Moore plays, well, a character right out of another Moore’s (Mary Tyler Moore’s) past: the dutiful suburban housewife from the post-Korean War era. As Cathy Whitaker, Moore watches her marriage, her social life, and family crumble before her eyes as her salesman husband (well played by Dennis Quaid) tipples too much and falls into dangerous (for 1958) homosexual dalliances while feigning to be working at the office. Moore turns to her gardener, a “Negro”, for solace: a connection which has the whole town of Hartford, Connecticut abuzz. The scenes between Moore and the gardener (played with nuance by Allstate Insurance pitchman and star of The Unit, Dennis Haysbert) are well done and believable, though they do leave you wanting for more, which is the whole theme of the movie: Is there anything left for Cathy after the collapse of her world?

The cinematography is gorgeous, perhaps too much so, in terms of the 1950s details  (great cars!) and colors, and reminds me of the dazzle and beauty of the recent Dr. Seuss films. The dialogue involving the Whitaker children is limited and somewhat stilted. Ditto for a few of the exchanges between Quaid and Moore. But for a film I’d never heard of (despite the Oscar nomination that Moore received for her role) there’s much to like about this small, seemingly unimposing period piece. Especially good with a nice Merlot and your beautiful wife snuggling next to you on the couch!

4 stars out of 5.

 

 

Heikki Nousainen as Father Jacob

Letters to Father Jacob (originally, Postia pappi Jacobille) (2009. Kinotaur. Finnish with English subtitles)

My pal Gerry Henkel sends me movies about Finland and Karelia, mostly in Finnish (which I don’t understand) with English subtitles. His most recent post brought me a copy of Postia pappi Jacobille. After a hard day of work (see my post entitled “Rewards” below) and a fine summer-inspired meal of brauts and tuna salad, I settled into my comfortable recliner with a Rolling Rock (thanks, Chris!) and watched the DVD Gerry had mailed me.

“Why are all Finnish movies so dark?” my fourteen year old son Jack asked when he stopped by in the Great Room of our house to see what I was up to.

“I don’t know.”

“Seems weird that people from a place that’s dark half the year would want to watch such depressing movies.”

I nodded and watched the opening credits.

“Don’t they have a high rate of suicide, like Iceland?”

I nodded again and sipped beer.

My son soon gave up and wandered off to his XBox.

To the movie. Essentially, the film is the story of Leila, a thick bodied, flat faced, somewhat dowdy creature who, as the film begins, we understand is being released from prison. We learn nothing of why she is in prison (that’s for later and I won’t spoil the plot by revealing it here!) but we do learn that, as a released prisoner, she has little choice but to take a job working for an elderly man in the Finnish countryside as his helpmate and housekeeper. Leila is played, with nuanced perfection, by Kaarina Hazard.

The old man is Father Jacob, a priest, who lives alone in a leaky, run-down rectory next to his country church. Heikki Nousainen portrays the failing cleric admirably, bringing dignity and holiness to a role that could have been reduced to a caricature in the hands of a lesser actor.

This is essentially a morality play between the world weary convict and the diminishing holy man. Leila discovers, upon meeting the priest, that he is not only aging, he is also blind. His one pleasure in life is to receive letters from believers who ask for intercession with God. Leila’s main task, she soon learns, is not to care for the old man: It is to read him the letters and pen responses to the pitiful pleas as directed by the kindly Father Jacob. Not only is Leila resentful of this duty, she is soon tempted to disregard her obligation in ways that spell trouble.

Some of the action and the dialogue between the two characters is telegraphed and predictable. At times, Nousainen overacts a bit, appearing too distraught and morally unhinged for the steadfastness of the priest’s seemingly strong convictions. But all in all, if you enjoy foreign films that spark discussion and pull at your heartstrings, this is a worthy movie to watch after a day’s work is done.

4 stars out of 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hells Angels directed by Howard Hughes (1930 and 1958. DVD Version from Universal)

If you’ve watched Leonardo Dicaprio’s depiction of billionaire Howard Hughes’ obsession to “get it right” regarding the British fighter pilots of the Great War, then you must watch this film. Why? Hells Angels is Hughes’ final product after $4 million dollars in production costs, years of filming, nearly 140 real WW I airplanes and a similar number of pilots, and the deaths of (reportedly) three stunt fliers who perished during the making of this fine film. Hughes himself was a pilot, a man of talent behind the stick of an airplane. He knew what he wanted when he leveraged his early fortune in the late 1920s to make this movie: He wanted real action, not models or spliced newsreel footage, to depict what it was like to fight dogfights in the Great War.

Mostly, the director succeeded. However, the best scenes aren’t those replicating plane on plane combat, but the exquisite details Hughes gave the rendering of a massive German Zeppelin during a night time bombing run on London. The models and mock-ups used in the Zeppelin sequence make the movie, in my humble view, far more so than the tepid acting that we are given by the film’s principle actors (with one notable exception).

The plot concerns two English brothers who go to war as pilots. The leads, played by Ben Lyon and James Hall, are adequate, not stellar. Hughes’ attempt to be ironic, to include a third wheel, if you will, into the brothers’ story, a German aristocrat-turned-officer, as a foil, fails. There is simply too much coincidence and not enough acting behind John Darrow’s portrayal of the German to make that character an interesting study.

But the saving grace of the picture in terms of acting, in my view, is the appearance of Jean Harlow in her first major film. She plays the vampy love interest to both brothers. Harlow’s portrayal of a seductress, seventy plus years after her death in 1937 due to kidney failure, still rings true. She plays to her attributes, both physical and intellectual, during this film in ways which made her portrayal believable and endearing despite her character’s lack of mainstream morality. One can only wonder what Harlow would have been like in middle and old age as an actress given the level of sophistication she brings to her role in this film.

In the end, the plot is a bit thin and forced, but there is enough action here, together with Harlow’s performance, to satisfy both the mind and the heart. A memorable film from a memorable man.

4 stars out of 5.

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24 25 26 27 28 29 30