Neruda’s Politics Over Poetry

DATELINE:  Chile Politics

neruda

Pablo Larrain’s other important movie this past year, besides Jackie, is another off-beat biographical drama, this time centering on Chilean poet and political activist Pablo Neruda.

The film Neruda puts its focus on a year-long period in 1948 when the poet was targeted by the Chilean government for arrest and explains his attempts to flee the country while being chased by some kind of Victor Hugo-styled police detective. Bernal is utterly breath-taking in his 1940s wardrobe.

Told from the viewpoint of Gael Gabriel Bernal as the police pursuer, you have a man of no consequence taking his identity from chasing the biggest figure in his country’s history. As the cop finally begs the audience, “I am not a supporting character,” and we feel that Larrain is in total agreement.

The film hints that the pursuer was a creation of Neruda’s paranoia or of his self-important art. We tend to support the group that prefers to remember that Nobel Prize winner Neruda was a Stalinist communist, unrepentant and disdainful of much else.

In 1948 Chile perhaps it was chichi to be an unrelenting communist chased by a relentless secret police officer. Peanut-sized actor Bernal is strikingly brilliant in his dogged role. Luis Gnecco is equal in his performance as the frumpy, profligate poet Neruda.

Americans may wonder how this uninspired-looking man could motivate his nation as a martyr, or give voice to the downtrodden, that sent many who helped him to prison. It is all part of Larrain’s poetic vision of cat-and-mouse politics.

We must admit that the notion that an unimportant pawn of political corruption drawing his identity from hounding a greater man for his beliefs is a fascinating topic.

The film is fully realized, one of two powerful political dramas this year by the South American filmmaker Pablo Larrain, now taking part in Hollywood mainstream.

Neruda will be intriguing for those of a certain socialist political bent. The rest of us will conclude Neruda and the Nobel Prize are overrated, but the movie is not.

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MacBird Outdid Trump as Caesar 45 years ago

 Julius Trump?

DATELINE:  Shakespeare in Absentia

We have seen many updated versions of Shakespeare over the years. Indeed, we enjoy seeing the Bard transported to new locations and timeframes. It often electrifies the message that has become stale to modern audiences.

We have seen Shakespeare set in Nazi Germany (Richard III), in the world of bikers (Coriolanus), in the world of independent film students (Hamlet), a corporate boardroom (Othello), and now we find a stage production of Julius Caesar in American politics.

The Shakespeare in the Park production makes Caesar a lookalike Donald Trump who hath grown ambitious. He has that chock of blond hair weave and an overlong red tie. He also has a bloated ego.

The man who would be emperor is assassinated by senators with knives, just like 2000 years ago. How much progress we have made in politics?

This version has created a firestorm, causing corporate sponsors to try to stifle artistic expression by withdrawing support. It’s a tempest in a teapot.

We think back to the Vietnam War days—and back then we must have been less sensitive because Macbeth was presented on stage in the form of MacBird.

That little ditty suggested that Lyndon Johnson had been behind the assassination of John Kennedy. In this cruel satire, without the Shakespearean tongue, the Scottish thane Macbird and his wife, Lady Bird, are party to a ruthless series of killings to rise to the top of the nation. Was Lyndon not born of woman?

We recall amusement about seeing a dumb tasteless play that presented President Johnson portrayed for conspiracy theorists  as Macbeth, but it did not quite engender the furor that President Trump has exemplified in a Caesar mode.

Satirizing politics of the moment has become a dangerous business. Just ask Alec Baldwin or Kathy Griffin who claim they are subject to social anger on social media.

So, too, Julius Caesar has created a debate—not about politics, but about art. To be or not, we’ll wait for the movie version.

Becket’s Unspeakable Love Story

Becket Cavorting Adults

DATELINE: Burton & O’Toole in Epical Struggle

In 1964 came the extraordinary event of a literate play turned into an epic movie. This was the Hollywood version of Murder in the Cathedral.  The more mundane play version by Jean Anhouilh was called simply Becket.  Its Broadway incarnation was a legend with Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn playing the leads, and exchanging roles every other night.

So, the movie version had big shoes to fill. Director Peter Glenville went out and arranged for the two biggest stars of the decade to go head-to-head:  Welsh Richard Burton, fresh off Cleopatra’s couch, and Irish Peter O’Toole, fresh off an Arabian oasis.

Everyone expected fireworks, but the two stars actually liked each other.

The movie shows it. O’Toole’s Henry II is utterly hysterical, and funny too. Burton’s Thomas Beckett is somber and sly. You will first be shocked at how young they are: the dissipation would set in, like dry rot, over the next decade.

They enjoyed their roles because, as O’Toole said at the time, in two blockbuster movies he was allowed a love interest of camels (Lawrence of Arabia) and Burton (Becket). And Burton was allowed only Elizabeth Taylor as his love interest. So, it was a natural affair between the actors.

Love interest indeed!

The docudrama goes grandiose in damp castles and Sherwood Forest, as Henry and Becket are like smitten boyfriends. That was the historical take—as no one could really figure how the Norman king and the Saxon aide-de-camp could be so entwined.

In a series of long capes, O’Toole is flashy and a hoot—and Burton’s character becomes more ethical and somber. Henry made Becket the recipient of many gifts: deaconship, chancellor, and Archbishop of Canterbury, to win his affection. Alas, it never worked the way Henry wanted, as Becket began to oppose his schemes.

Henry threw a fit in which he basically said he was surrounded by idiots, and the smartest man in the kingdom was opposed to him.

Well, the Knights took that to mean they had to relieve their king of a strange affection. As normal heterosexuals, they figured, you kill the one he loves. It’s a British tradition.

Of course, it all backfires. Henry II did penance with flagellation—and made Becket a saint, literally, by church canon. It makes for a rousing adventure and fascinating intellectual thriller.

 

 

Sherlock Meets Hornblower

DATELINE: Amazing Grace: The True Story

Sherlock meets Hornblower

Director Michael Apted put together a film called Amazing Grace in 2008 in which Sherlock Holmes would meet Horatio Hornblower. Well, not exactly, but Benedict Cumberbatch costarred with Ioan Gruffudd in the true story of young Wilberforce and young Pitt, British abolitionists.

 

The film was never embraced by the African American audience because it is plainly Masterpiece Theatre level Brit drama. It depicts the 20 year struggle of these English Members of Parliament to ban the slave trade in the British Empire around 1800.

Gloriously cast with actors with great faces, you can add Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, and Rufus Sewell, into the mix. You have a masterpiece of English actors.

Though not exactly action packed, it creates moments of powerful emotion as these intellectuals, Wilberforce and Pitt, boyhood chums, take on the powerful economic force that enslaved people.

It is well produced, has the flair of the era and aristocratic settings to tell the tale.

When the story of the timeless spiritual, “Amazing Grace,” is a secondary subplot, you have intriguing history alive. Albert Finney plays Gruffuld’s boyhood pastor, a former slave ship captain who wrote the song. Indeed, in one compelling scene, Cumberbatch presents Gruffud’s impressive rendition of the tune.

The film fell through the cracks initially because it did not go through television as its main channel. If one of the cable stations had picked it up, it would have become a biopic miniseries about ten hours long.

Instead, we have a throwback to the great historical movies that came out of England in the 1960s.

Antidote to Perry Mason and Precursor of Law & Order

DATELINE:  The Defenders

son & father defenders

The precursor to Law & Order, and arguably the best legal show ever on television, The Defenders has finally come to DVD with its first complete season. Back in 1961, you had a choice of two shows going head to head: Perry Mason with Raymond Burr—and the more socially conscious, New York-filmed show with E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as his son.

Back in those days Reed played Ken Preston, and was considered an up-and-coming dramatic star. You may wonder why he chose to move into sit-com after seeing him here. E.G. Marshall was an unusual lead character, a highly paid lawyer who often gave bad advice or even made a bad decision. Unlike Mason, Marshall’s Preston even lost cases often.

The show remains remarkable, topical, and intelligent, ready for discovery by a generation that likely never heard of it. However, they will know the guest stars. It reads like a litany of New York stage actors and movie stars in their early days.

In the first few episodes, the show tackled mercy killing, traumatic stress disorder, multiple personalities and legal insanity, and drug addiction. It shocked audiences of the early 1960s.

It also gave many actors a chance at a serious television drama in the wake of the Golden Age of anthology shows. You will see Gene Hackman and Jack Klugman in one drama, another with 1930s character actor Frank McHugh and Western star Clu Gulager. Also on tap is Frank Gorshin playing a nightclub imitator of movie stars with multiple personalities—one who has committed murder.  And, almost in premonition of his future as the father of the Brady Bunch, Robert Reed plays opposite 9-year old Richard Thomas in his pre-Waltons days.

A prison show featured an unbilled Godfrey Cambridge and a costar Ossie Davis with Gomer Pyle’s Frank Sutton as a psychotic rioting prisoner.

The first season is now available, but future seasons were considered even higher quality by viewers. This is a treat that should not be missed by Law & Order fans—and those who appreciate solid drama. And, E.G. Marshall was always marvelous.

Early Mohican Epic: The Last Shall Be First

DATELINE:  Bad Indians

Bruce Cabot   Bruce Cabot

Fenimore Cooper’s Romantic epic of the West takes place in upstate New York, of course, in 1757. It’s where and when the wild west begins in The Last of the Mohicans.

The 1936 version of the classic is extremely well-done, but has what you might expect from a studio version in the black & white age. The American Indians (before becoming Native Americans) are played by actors with fair skin and blue eyes. This is particularly noticeable for the most noble of all American Savages, Chingachgook.

The last of the bad Indians, Magua, is played terrifically by underrated Bruce Cabot, fresh off fighting as a stalwart hero against King Kong. This time he is barely recognizable with his Mohawk haircut and bare midriff. He is sullen, dangerous, and quite impressive.

The King Kong hangover continues for him. The musical score for the film is a rip-off of the overwrought music for the giant ape. In several sequences, Cabot seems to be re-enacting his other role on Skull Island in native garb.

His foil is Randolph Scott as the first true rifleman, Hawkeye. And, no one could be better in the role, as the actor shows early on his subtle humor in the part.

One of the truly odd changes is the reversal of Alice and Cora, the two daughters of the regiment. In the original story, Cora is dark-haired and tempestuous. She is called Alice here, and her blonde sister becomes Magua’s obsession. In Cooper’s book he appreciates her dark looks, not her blonde locks.

The story is further muddled by putting the key scenes with the last Mohican somewhere earlier in the plot—and ending with some kind of court-martial of Hawkeye. It doesn’t matter too much, as this turns out to be a pleasing version overall, hitting on the key moments of the story and casting truly fine actors.

CASEBOOK FOR OLD MILL CIRCLE

NEW AND NOW AVAILABLE!  Latest book in Mill Circle series!

author OssurworldAuthor Ossurworld

A timeless tale of Nature unfolds among the small denizens of Mill
Circle.
Lurid tales of the survival of fit and unfit emerge at the place where animals could partake of the Yellow Spring long ago, but where now spring water has dried up. You might call these tales of Old Mill Circle macabre, gruesome, or a version of
New England grotesque.
In its own cruel and harsh way, Nature torments a squirrel trying to cross electrical wires, but instead meets his Rubicon. A small frog plays dice with his life –the die say snake eyes. A hairy woodpecker sees the false berries of decoration and finds himself lured like a sailor by a siren. Hawks dispatch squirrels and chipmunks, leaving
only small dogs for their dinner. And, birds find homes elsewhere as the 21st century puts its eerie mark on Old Mill Circle.

This small booklet is another in the Mill Circle series about one of the strangest neighborhoods in New England–where paranormal meets the grotesque, the place where history converges–from the home of Titanic victims, to the place where their ghosts reside.  All stories are true.

Available on Amazon in paperback for library builders, or as ebook for smart readers.

The Mill Circle series

HAUNTING NEAR VIRTUOUS SPRING

TALES OF A TITANIC FAMILY

NATURE TALES OF OLD MILL CIRCLE

A GRAND MAPLE TREE ON MILL CIRCLE

THE GREAT BARN OF MILL CIRCLE

VILLAGE POST OFFICE AT MILL CIRCLE

GHOSTS OF MILL CIRCLE (forthcoming, early Fall 2017)

CASEBOOK FROM OLD MILL CIRCLE

 

 

Tuning into Turner

DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP

Featured image

We feel a great privilege to have seen Mr. Turner with grumpy Timothy Spall as JMW Turner, one of the 19th centuries most intriguing and under-appreciated seascape artists.

Like most artists or creative people with more than a streak of genius, Turner was boorish, unsocial, and a curmudgeon. He had an eye for color that made up for his personal imperfections. Beneath the surface, he was a man true to himself.

Timothy Spall is perfection, giving one of those tour de force performances that too few people saw, and which denied him the accolades and Oscar he deserved for this work.

A man who did not mince words (when he used them), Turner did all for his art. And, the film is luscious with sunrises and sea scenes that Turner took pains to depict as accurately as his brushes could.

Mr. Turner was odd, to say the least, being a hopeless daddy’s boy—and Daddy pleasantly made sacrifices unto old age to make sure conditions were appropriate for his son’s work.

The film portrays the 19th century in all its class-conscious detail, and the film reeks of atmosphere when required. But, the exquisite goes hand in glove with the ugly.

Small encounters highlight the film. When Turner visits a new fangled photography parlor, he is fascinated and appalled. He mutters he is grateful the camera does not take pictures in color.

If one critic claimed Turner was sublime and ridiculous, so was the world in which the painter worked.

Moving as slowly as the pace of life back then, you must fall into the cadence and morals of the era. The film is a treat in how it transports the viewer into another world.

Seeing a dozen cookie-cutter action films can be tolerated if we have the occasional masterpiece to savor. This continues a streak of brilliant biographical films we have so enjoyed—Theory of Everything, Imitation Game, and Foxcatcher, have restored our faith in superior filmmakers. Add Mr. Turner to the list—and it is a banner year.

 

Missing Time, But Never Missing Ancient Aliens

DATELINE: TV MASHUP

 hair

Hey, Porcupine!

The History Channel runs their ever-popular Ancient Aliens series as a marathon at least once or twice per week. With its usual batch of crypto-experts, including the guy with the electrically shocked hairdo, we have come to listen to their endless expertise on any and all mythologies under the sun–or beyond it.

Of course, we don’t know how much expertise these guys truly have, or what degrees they hold, if any. Nonetheless, they now speak to us with authority on the unsolved mysteries of the universe.

They haven’t ridden in flying saucers that they admit to, but know someone who has.

It all started with the granddaddy of crypto-UFOlogists, Erick Van Daniken. We read his stuff back in the hippie days—and many things have passed since. He is as topical as ever. In fact, he may be completely mainstream now. We know those creatures exist, visited Earth, and the government has covered everything up–from the Nazca Lines to Roswell.

Well, Ancient Aliens has a new batch of episodes, and we couldn’t miss it—though we wish we had missing time on this week’s show.

The series is at the bottom of the barrel, contending that aliens were influential on the American Civil War. As protectors of the great Republic, they were sending messages to Abe Lincoln and trying to save the Union. Following the premiere came Hangar 1, season two, that suggested UFOs have fought against the United States in Korea and Vietnam.

These space gods can be fickle. Either they’re for us or against us. It depends on the war. We wish they’d get their act together.

If you think Ancient Aliens may have crossed wires with ghost hunters, you’d be with us on this one. When they noted that writer Ambrose Bierce suffered a head wound during the war and that’s what made him a great writer, we knew where this was headed. All great writers have their inspired stories coming from UFO visitors. Our blog is a direct result of alien abductions.

In 1913 Bierce went missing—apparently joining aliens in the great beyond, in the Mexican desert. Lucky guy.

It all ties together—different dimensions, UFOs, spirit worlds, string theory, and lost time. It’s just that they seem to be stretching credulity beyond the big bang they get for the buck.

We just wish those aliens would take us away.

Imitation Game: Sincerest Form of Flattery

 computing

All the best films this year appear to be docudramas.

We highly anticipated The Imitation Game, and we were not disappointed with the movie—but we were furious at how a hero of World War II was so miserably treated by his own government.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) invented the crypto-computer that cracked the Nazi codes. He could not be celebrated, nor thanked, because it was top secret.

Following the story on three flashback levels, the film shows Turing as a youth with his friend Christopher in the years before the war, his team of cryptography experts during the war, and his run-ins with the police for being a consenting adult in 1951.

Populated with the usual familiar faces of high quality British drama on TV, you won’t be disappointed with the acting performances that are head and shoulders above anything much produced by American filmmakers. Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Mark Strong, and Matthew Goode, are familiar faces—and thank heavens for them.

Cumberbatch, of course, runs away with the film—proving himself one of those versatile actors that we may enjoy for decades in a variety of roles. He slips into his parts effortlessly (so it seems), and he can adapt to all sorts of film parts—from Sherlock to Khan to Julian Assange.

Dare we compare him to the classic British actors of yore? We still await his work in some Shakespearean film efforts before calling him another Olivier or Burton. He is less classical leading man and more odd stick character, but that should give him breadth many others do not.

His final moments in this movie are extraordinary.

Eaton Place, Gosford Park, Downton Abbey? High Rent Stuff

MOVIE MASHUP

going gone gosford

 

With the final season of Downton Abbey nearly a year away, we decided to give ourselves a fix with the movie that helped Julian Fellowes decide to write the hit TV show.

We refer to Gosford Park, which we did not put on our A list back then. It seemed to be too American filtered—with Robert Altman directing like Agatha Christie had decided to redecorate Upstairs/Downstairs.

By far the worst part of the film was Bob Balaban as the intrusive Hollywood producer at the English shooting party. Heaven knows, he was an anachronism then—and remains one now. He just did not fit in, whether it is bonking his beautiful manservant Ryan Phillipe, or calling butler Alan Bates, Mr. Jennings. It seemed too precious for words.

Yet, the overall effect was to pick out all the actors who found work on Downton Abbey—including Maggie Smith, playing well, Maggie Smith as a dowager.

One of the key effects was the all-star cast. It seemed to bring in every actor who had a role in a British miniseries to those who frequented Ivory-Merchant period movies. It was a great idea, making characters jump out instantly. Without the weekly series to bring familiarity to the characters, Altman hit on a highly effective idea.

Of course, there is something insidious going on—and we see the clues everywhere—from bottles of poison to missing knives. There is murder in the air, and we aren’t even close to the Orient Express.

It helps to have a great cast, clever plotting, and a director at his peak of power. We found this bargain basement Downton, but then again Downton is bargain basement Brideshead Revisited.

If you are into the genre, then it all falls into period place. You know where you are and what to expect. We were not as up or down as the first time around. Gosford Park started to feel comfortable.

 

 

Inflatable Ghost Army

DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP

ghost army

 

Any movie with a bad title like Ghost Army might make you pass on it. That would be a mistake. This film is a documentary about one of the most top secret military units of World War II.

Yes, the United States Army had a unit for camouflage—which featured several components that included sonic, communication, and visual.

The trick that the Army wanted to perpetrate on the Nazis was to convince them there were more soldiers and tanks on the way than the United States had available.

Fortunately for filmmaker Rick Beyer, in 2013 many of the 1100 men who made up the unit are still with us to give their fascinating tale.

Artists, sound engineers, stage designers, were all needed and brought into the unit from Hollywood and Broadway. One of the members was actually fashion designer Bill Blass—a Beau Brummel even in war.

These men sketched, made watercolor images, and created other on site pictures while they also constructed rubber and inflatable tanks, gunnery positions, and even inflatable soldiers, for the benefit of Nazi air reconnaissance.

It is almost preposterous, but it worked, helping Einsenhower and Patton save thousands of American GIs. Yet, it was not all fun and games. During the Battle of the Bulge, the small unit was actually forced into combat and took casualties

This is one of the unknown tales of the great generation of World War II—and it had been classified for decades. Now, for us, the truth has been revealed—and we can celebrate these extraordinary citizen soldiers who did a remarkable job with artistic talents in the midst of modern warfare.

This one is worth your attention.

 

The Theory of Something Special

DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP

 Redmayne

We generally anticipate one or two movies per year. And, our disappointment often is palpable.

This year we eagerly awaited The Theory of Everything, figuring it would be all things to movie theorists.

A biographical picture about an egghead British scientist hardly seems like the stuff of thrilling movies, especially when the scientist is suffering from an incurable condition called ALS.

This true story about Stephen Hawking, the cosmologist, is magnificent.

Yes, we offer an unqualified, non-sarcastic, thoroughly humble opinion. Eddie Redmayne is utterly convincing in playing the iconic Hawking. We are mesmerized at his ability to play the young man on the verge of having ALS symptoms. He grows more extraordinary in each passing stage. His Oscar may be one of the more deserving in recent years.

From his stumbles and awkwardness, to his humor and sweetness, Hawking has an interest in a dedicated and lovely young lady (Felicity Jones also impressive). She marries a man with a two-year death sentence.

Hawking defies the laws of the universe. His survival is some kind of example of quantum physics. He thrives, despite the disadvantages.

This character drama also carries the burden of intelligent people who actually speak and apply science everywhere. Hawking wins the girl of his dreams by explaining the similarities between Tide detergent and black holes.

You may actually learn something about the universe, the human heart, and how to live, from this movie. Well, that certainly takes us where we seldom have gone before in a movie review….

Better quit while we are ahead.

 

 

Birds Do It

DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP

 byebye birdie

Michael Keaton’s tour de force in Birdman is vaguely reminiscent of Ronald Colman in A Double Life, more than Bette Davis in All About Eve.

Actors and their roles for $200 might put you in jeopardy. Keaton used to be Batman, but the insider joke of this movie is that actors playing superheroes retain some magical superpowers. We thoroughly enjoy Keaton flying, but apparently superheroes cannot write a good script, nor a good Broadway play.

Hollywood always loves a take down of off-Broadway, or nearer. This is the Sweet Smell of Success from the other side of show biz.

Making a movie that delineates a conflict between pretentious talky drivel and action heroic noise makes Hollywood a happy place. They can pat themselves on the back for having their cake and eating it too.

There are some wonderful actors giving smashing performances here: Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan, and Edward Norton. None of these is unexpected. This is not unexpected in a film that has a subtitle of The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.

In-jokes abound—references to other superhero actors—and how the characters and actors may start to become the same kettle of fish. Snide cracks about Robert Downey, Jr., and George Clooney don’t make a script, but they add up to moments.

This is a film of moments shot in a pretentious long shot that looks like one take. It’s illusion and Hitchcock did it better 60 years ago.

Not quite a movie, definitely not a play, not a think piece, and not a superhero action movie, this film probably will leave everyone a bit dissatisfied.

 

In Like Kline; Move Over, Flynn

DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP

In like flynn

To play Errol Flynn in a movie, it takes a 67 year old actor to act out the final year of the 50 year old Flynn. Kevin Kline is nothing short of brilliant in the role—roguish and charming as we expect Flynn was. He is also just bloated, tired, aged, and worn out enough to play the role perfectly.

As biopics go, The Last of Robin Hood won us over.

The great star is so irresponsible and self-destructive, you want to shake him into sensibility, but he went about his decadent life, living each moment as if it were his last. Kline brings so true pathos to the decline.

 

Dakota Fanning is the young, underaged Beverly Aadland whom Flynn meets when she is fifteen and looks older. As he says, he’s too old for her, but she is not too young for him. His sense of moral irony always had the better of him.

 

Matching Kevin Kline is another surprisingly hard-boiled performance from Susan Sarandon as Flo, Bev’s mother. As a peg-legged stage mother, she is largely responsible for preparing her daughter for life in the fast lane. There is no Hollywood glamour in Sarandon—and she even comes across in a late Bette Davis mode in scenes.

 

One of the many incidents, out of chronology and used for dramatic effect, is the offer of the role of Humbert Humbert to Flynn by Stanley Kubrick. But, if Kubrick won’t take Beverly as Lolita, the fire of Flynn’s loins, then he won’t do the film.

 

Suffice it to say, Kubrick did it with other actors. He dismissed Aadland as “too old.”

 

We were prepared to dislike this film, but the performances warmed us up—and Flynn’s charming, sad story held us in the grip of man who needed true friends, not users and hangers-on.