Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bridge of Spies Nearly Perfect

Steven Spielberg's newest film is the historical spy thriller Bridge of Spies.  While Spielberg and company do occasionally take a few side-steps from historical accuracy, the movie is nearly perfect in its storytelling.  Spielberg has long ago mastered storytelling without heavy exposition, narration, or burdensome dialog.  He tells his stories the way the medium of film should: simply and visually.

To do this, he also works with the best and he has that in spades through the skills of Tom Hanks who plays historical lead character, insurance lawyer James Donovan.  Yes, there really was a James Donovan and yes, he really did go into East Berlin, alone and armed only with his wits to negotiate the release of Gary Powers, the U2 spy plane pilot who was shot down while flying over a Soviet missile installation. Okay, okay, James Donovan was not really quite the lone wolf and without support that is portrayed in the movie.  The fact is that JFK and Nikita Khrushchev had been working on trying to take back the escalating Cold War far before the Powers' exchange following the near call of nuclear war in October of 1960.  So the real James Donovan had the way paved a little better, but that is not really what the movie is about.

Hanks is an astonishing actor.  It seems to me that I write that sentence every time I review one of his movies.  His ability to emote every thought and feeling in a single moment of film astonishes me every time I see him do it.  He tells the story.  He doesn't need dialog or narration, just his consummate skill as an actor who understands his job. It is this skill that makes the movie work on the level it does.

Hanks is surrounded by a host of actors who also have skills but the two that also clearly make the movie work are Amy Ryan who plays Mary Donovan and Mark Rylance who plays the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  Ryan, as the wife to Hanks' Donovan, has great chemistry with her on-screen husband.  Like Hanks, she doesn't need a lot of dialog to communicate her complex and loving relationship to the complicated life her husband finds himself in.

Mark Rylance gives Rudolf Abel something that few Soviet spies have ever been given, humanity.  Abel is a man of honor who is doing his job.  He is, in every sense, an enemy combatant whose simple humor and honest performance makes him no just "the enemy" but a human who has decided to serve his country, just as American spy Gary Powers who is played by Austin Stowell.  We don't really get to know much about Powers, but there is plenty on the real Gary Powers.

If the movie has any fault, it is that it tries to tell too large of a story.  While the reaction to Donovan's defense of Abel is important and the training and selection of the U2 pilots are
important, it may be overly detailed in the movie.  The tensions between the US and the USSR are important, particularly for a younger audience. The silliness of duck and cover and the fear that some felt was the coming and inevitable nuclear war - that fortunately never came - is adds to the feel of the film too, but may also be a bit over-stated.

What is important is that Donovan is a man of principle who believes that without the rights of the Constitution being given to every person regardless of who they are or where they are from, we will fail in what is our single greatest achievement, a document for all people.  Donovan, who really did engineer the additional trade for an imprisoned college student, becomes a remarkable "standing man" who when knocked down, always stands again.  He stands on his ideals and beliefs.  He stands on justice.

Bridge of Spies is well worth your time if for not other reason it is a good spy thriller too.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Welcome to the House of Usher...I Mean Crimson Peak

If ever a movie suffers from bad advertising choices, it is Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak. The movie is a slow paced, to say the least, with some intense moments of scariness, but its storytelling is frequently plodding rather than building suspense.

Crimson Peak is visually stunning and well-acted by it fairly small ensemble cast of Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain as the creepy and not all too normal brother and sister, Sir Thomas Sharpe and Lady Lucille Sharp. Mia Wasikowska is Edith Cushing who becomes Sir Thomas's bride plays the heroine demonstrating some range. Charlie Hunnam plays would-be hero Dr. Alan McMichael who is the most two-dimensional of the characters. Jim Beaver plays strong and loving father a role that he pretty much developed from his years on Supernatural. In short, the cast performs well enough, but the characters are a little predictable and with the exception of Edith and Thomas, pretty much not very deep.

They are, in fact, classic characters of the Gothic romance and that is the problem of the movie. Advertised as a Gothic terror movie, it is in reality a Gothic romance. The ghost story is, while creepy, really more of the frame that was common in romance stories. The movie is overly slow paced with seemingly extraneous details that don't really add to the story. It starts with Edith Cushing who wants to be a writer announcing that a baronet is a titled, self-important man who uses servants to meet his needs. She then immediately becomes enamored with the same baronet, Sir Thomas Sharpe and marries him in pretty short order.

From there the movie plods along with an occasional reminder that it's supposed to be a ghost story. There is also the trouble of the story Edith is writing which too is a Gothic ghost story, but we are never told enough about the story to know if what we are watching is the story or if it is a parallel prediction. We know that at least one editor wants Edith to add a romantic plotline to her story.

That is what Crimson Peak is a romantic plot with some creepy ghost and a fairly gruesome ending. It is far from the "horror" story it's been advertised as. For me, the other problem is the story has been done before and better. While I've found nothing to indicate that del Toro has said Peak is "The Fall of the House of Usher," it clearly is firmly entrenched in the Edgar Allan Poe Gothic story of madness and terror. In Crimson Peak, the main character becomes a strong female character rather than an old school chum. In "Usher," we have a sinking house, a "lunatic" family, incest, and the added bonus that we cannot be sure that we should trust the storyteller. Del Torro has included all this in his movie, but its pacing and lack of tight storytelling do nothing to bring the classic tale to life, and we have no reason not to trust Edith's story.

Crimson Peak is one that you might want to rent or wait for on a pay channel. Its moments of intensity and visuals are over weighted by slow pacing and loose plot. Instead just read "The Fall of the House of Usher" for a good Gothic tale.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Horatio's Backpack - The National Theater's Production o Hamlet

The new production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the National Theater in London's Barbican is a different kind of Hamlet. I was pleased to attend the NT Live event at a local movie theater of the production.  Since many of us will never get to see theses shows, the high definition broadcast of a single production is actually a treat.

So what's different about this Hamlet? It is the theme through staging.  Olivier played up the oedipal side of the Hamlet story and cut all the political stuff.  Mel Gibson played the zaniest or most antic and possibly the worst Hamlet on film.  Derek Jacobi's Hamlet was one that actually seemed like the son of a warrior king. Unfortunately, the filming of his version makes it, to say the least, boring to watch. Kenneth Branagh brought the uncut and more serious version of Hamlet to film. His was grand in scope and occasionally over-acted with a strong supporting cast.  David Tennant's Dane mines the humor that is in the play. Ethan Hawke's is a sort of lost or even slacker Hamlet.  What is Cumberbatch's Hamlet? He is one of generational nature.  It is perhaps the way the play has been reordered slightly and cut to reflect a more political and war-like nature by director Lyndsey Turner that makes Benedict's character of Hamlet less human and more of a Millennial sort of Hamlet.  At three hours long, this Hamlet in its cutting falls closer to the complete text than the radically butchered version with Mel Gibson.

The wonder of this version is that it tends to be more statement.  The 39-year-old Cumberbatch's Hamlet is one that really tries to throw the facets of the character almost in a juggler like fashion. It has been said that no actor can hit all the dimensions of Hamlet as a character and so perhaps to the detriment of Cumberbatch's skill, the director's vision becomes a statement of Hamlet as generational representative trying to be all things. His "antic disposition" finds the wonder and humor of Shakespeare's gifted use of double entendre and puns.  The humor is a potent element.  Just as quickly, Hamlet drops the madness to show the depths of pain and despair he feels at his father's murder.  By the time the play-within-the-play rolls around, Hamlet becomes the conglomeration of these facets.  His costume has shifted from the classic Hamlet in black that begins the play to a combination of clothes from Adidas tennis shoes, a drummer's red coat under which shows a Ziggy Stardust tee.  He is a representative of having no real place in this era to call his own and being a self-absorbed member or the generation he symbolizes. He finds no real direction until his confrontation with the Fortinbras army and his realization that while he has done nothing to change his circumstance, 20,000 men are prepared to die for no reason. It is from this point that Hamlet understands that he must make a change.  He must become involved.
When next we see Hamlet, gone are the affectations of his wild costume and now he appears in a simple costume of a merchant sailor.  When last he faces his battle with the treacherous and misled Laertes, he wears a sparkling white fencing coat with glove opposed to the black costumes of Laertes and Claudius.  In short he is the hero his generation must become if change is to come.

I would have liked to felt more for the characters but the symbolic use of costume and set occasionally got in the way.  An example would have to be Horatio's backpack.  Every time Horatio (Leo Bill) is on stage, he wears a large knapsack and for apparently no reason.  When he arrives at the castle, he wears the backpack.  When they go to see the ghost, there is Horatio and his backpack.  When he watches the play-within-the-play, he wears his backpack.  The only time that Horatio is not wearing his pack is at the end when he puts it down during the duel. I am still not sure what the point of the pack was. Horatio is also covered in visible tattoos.  I am also unsure if they are a statement to link Horatio to the current fad or if Leo Bill just has a lot of tattoos.  Bill doesn't have a strong voice or presence to begin with and then to encumber the witness of Hamlet with a backpack and tattoos did no service to the production. 

Another example is as the kingdom of Claudius crumbles the floors are covered in black debris that clings to every actor and costume. It interferes with the performance.  Ophelia, played by Sian Brooke, has to deal with it in perhaps her strongest scene.  Ophelia's first soliloquy is extremely labored while her madness scene is strong and moving with great depth.  It would be better though if she weren't covered in the fake black symbols of a crumbling empire.

The performance by Claudius, played by CiarĂ¡n Hinds, is a good one. He has just the right amount of smooth-talking slimy villain to make his relationship with Cumberbatch's Hamlet a potent conflict. The casting, overall, was an interesting choice. Karl Johnson who plays the ghost and the grave digger is a fine actor but is a far better grave digger than warrior king.  Laertes really seems to labor with his speeches.  In the defense of some of the speeches appearing labored, it could be because of the closeness of camera to the performer in the "live theater" experience.  

I liked the show.  It moved well and delivery was, for the most part, clean.  While a few of the casting choices were weaker than other actors I've seen in the roles, most of the time, if the set, symbolic nature, and costumes didn't get in the way, the actors worked well on stage.  The line interpretations gave me some insight into meanings that I had not thought of.  It had energy.  So when it comes out on DVD, if it does, give it a shot.  It may not become as iconic as Olivier's Hamlet, but it will give some new perspective.

Now if I could just figure out the reason for Horatio's backpack.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Of Mountains and Molehills, Much Ado

A few are horribly upset that Obama renamed Mt. McKinley. He did and he didn't.  For a party whose advocates supposedly believe state rights, it seems to me that a number of right-wing pundits and a few in the conservative wing, are awfully upset over which flea owns the dog. I should point out that many elected Republicans also support the return of Denali.  One friend said it was a clear abuse of Obama's executive powers and went on to say this is one example showing  Obama as a dictator. This, of course, is the red meat fed not from the party but the right wing media. Strong stuff for a mountain that accidentally, more or less, got its name changed. The story of Denali vs. McKinley is the story of accidentally renaming a mountain, Ohio wanting a mountain in Alaska named for a native son, Alaska wanting to name its own mountains, a park named to honor an assassinated president and a law passed shortly after a World War.

Mt. McKinley's original name by the indigenous people was Denali which means literally Big or Tall or Great Mountain.* The first European to see the mountain was George Vancouver who called it a "distant stupendous mountain," but Vancouver left it unnamed. Ferdinand von Wrangel was actually the first person to give it a map name, Tenada, and I have no idea what that means. When Alaska was owned by Russia, it was commonly called Bolshaya Gora which means enough Big Mountain. Given the fact the natives also called it that, it seems kind of appropriate.

In 1897, a prospector named William Dickey named it in his journal as Mt. McKinley.  So in 1900 a government geologist named Josiah Spurr listed the name of Denali, as everything but Denali.  His list included a bad spelling of the Russian word for big, Mt. Allen and Mt. McKinley.  In geological reports, it was subsequently referred to as Mt. Mckinley.  After President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, congress created Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917 thus by default making the official name Mt. McKinley.

Alaskans, however, continued to refer to the area and the mountain as Denali.  In 1975, the Alaskan legislature officially requested the US government return it to Denali.  The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, who govern the naming of locations and was created in 1890, agreed but were blocked.  A single congressman, Ralph Regula, from Canton, Ohio, from where President McKinley hailed, used his influence to block the renaming. In 1980, McKinley Park was made a part of the much larger Denali National Park, leaving only the issue of the name of the mountain.

Ralph Regula
Regula used congressional procedures which basically killed any chance of actually changing the name. He would periodically introduce legislation into the budget or in separate legislation directing the name of McKinley be used.  Even if the legislation failed, as long as there was a bill on the agenda of congress, the Department of the Interior who oversees the recommendations of the Board on Geographic Names, could not meet the request of the Alaskan Congress and Governor because they cannot change a name while there is legislation pending.

Regula retired in 2009 and once again there was a move in the Alaskan legislature to change the name. Two more Ohio representatives, Betty Sutton and Tim Ryan, took up Regula's cause.  Regula is a Republican while the two new fighters for McKinley are both Democrats.

In 2015, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the name would be made Denali using a power given to the Secretary if the Board on Geographic Names failed to answer a request by a state in a reasonable amount of time.  Citing the Board's failure to meet the request of the name change for 40 years as being more than enough reasonable time, the name of Mt. McKinley became Denali. The law that gives the Secretary of Interior that power was passed by Congress in 1947.

As one Alaskan senator, Lisa Murkowski (R) put it, "There's a lot of things in Ohio that are already named after McKinley. This is no affront to our former president; this is all about ensuring that respect for the land and respect for the native people of the region is afforded." The current Governor of Alaska,  Bill Walker (R) was glad the name would now "reflect and respect the rich cultural history of our state..." President Obama made the name change even more official, if there is such a thing, by Executive Order in September of 2015.

So McKinley, which was basically accidentally named by a prospector and sloppy surveyor, has been returned to its original name as requested by Alaska.  No, Obama cannot rename other landmarks. In all this much ado, there is still a magnificent mountain that will be here long after we are all dust.  Now you know that it is just a tiny bit ridiculous for fleas to argue over who owns the dog or build a mountain out of a molehill.

*Thanks to for much of the well-documented historical information that I am too lazy to look up elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Bring Him Home

No not this Martian
Believe or not two years ago to the day, I posted my review of Gravity: a thrill ride movie.  The review for The Martain is a short one so I am just going to post a whole bunch of pictures.  The Martain is vastly superior to Gravity.

This review is spoiler free except for one thing, so let's get that out of the way first:
Sean Bean does not die in this movie.

The rest of the review goes like this:

The Martian is an extremely solid movie.  It is well-acted.  It has a tight plot.  It has strong characters.  It has plenty of very cool action that is not over the top nor do we ever get that feeling of "How much stuff can  go wrong?" in the sequences, which is so often the case of these movies.   It is worth it in 3d.  It is easy to watch.

If anything, The Martian reminds us that we need to go back to exploring space with more than probes.

It is, in fact, one of the best films I've seen in a while.

Go see it.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Everest: I wish I read the book first.

According to history and climbing mythos, George Mallory in 1923 when asked why he climbed Mount Everest replied, "Because it's there." It would seem no one who climbs mountains actually is able to describe why they do so.  In Jon Krakauer's book about his climb of the world's highest peak, Into Thin Air, according to someone I know who has read it, Krakauer agrees that there is no real good reason to climb particularly Everest.  In an interview on Huffington Post, Krakauer stated that it was the worst mistake of his life and that he is still haunted by the events on Everest in 1996.  He is also not happy with the adaptation of his book in the movie Everest.

So with that in mind, I offer you my little review of the movie Everest, based on the book Into Thin Air.  I have not read the book but my wife, who went to the movie with me, has and although she did not know when we went in that it was based on the book, she instantly recognized the movie was an adaptation of Krakauer's book.  My wife liked the movie better than I did.  I liked it okay, but I felt like I was missing something or more aptly somethings.

The movie's photography is breathtaking especially in 3D.  Honestly though, it can only hold attention for so long.  The movie has some moments of tense excitement.  I didn't know who died originally, so I didn't know who would die in the movie.  The issue for me is  that I didn't really become attached to any of the characters save the leader of the group Rob Hall played by Jason Clarke.  I became a little attached to Doug Hansen played by John Hawkes but the rest, I really didn't connect with, and this was despite a stellar cast that included Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightly, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington, and Emily Watson.

The problem was that the movie needed to be built around understanding the lives of a couple of characters instead of around the events of the climb.  I also felt like I was missing an understanding of the steps of the climb.  These events were touched on like I should understand the different bases, the different approach, the rope issues, the climatizing issues, the importance of teamwork and why the lead sherpas would care if they worked together or not.  You see all those things are mentioned, but nothing is ever really made clear.  For example, there is a good deal of discussion about where extra oxygen or "o" is stashed.  I have no idea where the south pole is or the distance that the climbers had to go to get to it.  I actually still have no understanding of the distances involved.

What I do know, is that it is dangerous, hard, painful, and many die trying to climb.  My wife liked the movie better than I did for one simple reason.  All those gaps, like the different base camps and their importance, had been filled in by Into Thin Air.  She was revisiting people she had come to know from the book.  She understood them.  She understood what it meant to have climbed all seven summits (it means a climber has reached the summit of the highest peaks on seven continents). She understood the significance of their deaths or survival and the extremity of climbing Everest.  My two hours on the mountain lacked all that information.

I liked the movie for its intensity and astounding vistas.  I was frustrated by its weakness in telling what was and should be a moving and intense story.  It is well worth the watch, but it is not as strong of a  film as it could have been.