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Five decades after the Vietnam war we still have riveting movies about that war, or that conflict, as it was called back then. Spike Lee tells the story of Da 5 Bloods, the nickname for a group of all black Vietnam veterans, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who go back to find and exhume their fallen leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and bring him home, and to find the massive cache of gold bars they buried there in 1971. To help them, Paul has brought along his adult son, David (Jonathan Majors).

They find Norman, and they find the gold. The problem is, you can’t just carry out that much gold in backpacks without attracting the wrong kind of attention, and the ensuing conflicts during the retreat brings out the worst in each of them, all deeply damaged from post-traumatic stress and ruined lives. Today’s Vietnam is not the Vietnam of the 1960s, but it’s also not Kansas. There are still plenty of landmines that can kill, and demons that can drive you insane.

In today’s age, where black Americans are once again the targets of hate, injustice and suppression fueled by nascent resurgence of racism let loose in our society, a movie about the fates of black soldiers in a war that wasn’t theirs hits the mark. Beware that this movie has some very horrid imagery that once seen, will stay with you for a long time. Some pictures cannot be unseen. I have warned you.

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Ellen Martin’s (Meryl Streep) husband dies during a cruise on Lake George. When she tries to collect on an insurance policy, her hapless journey eventually leads her to Panama City and the world of shell companies the rich of the world are using to amass larger fortunes on the backs of ordinary citizens. The movie tells the story of the famed Panama Papers scandal that quickly created a straw fire in early 2016 before the tumultuous presidential elections and the ensuing Trump administration stole the headlines.

It’s ironic that a story about how the rich evade taxes, cheat their own countries, through complex webs of fraud and worthless paper was told just before we elected Trump. But there are other books written about that.

The Laundromat tells this story awkwardly, not quite a movie, but not quite a documentary either. I kept watching, but I was quite unsatisfied at the end.

You can pass on this one, unless, of course, you’re working on a paper about the Panama Papers.

 

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In America, we currently have the worst race relations and resulting riots, protests and civil unrest since 1968. Who would have thought that over a 50-year span of history, we would not have made more progress toward race equality in this country. The shackles of slavery, hardened over 400 years of brutal history, have not been undone, and a significant percentage of our population is still – oppressed.

This is the backdrop to which we chose to watch the 2019 film Harriet, which dramatizes and illustrates the life of Harriet Tubman. The story starts in 1844 in Maryland. A 26-year-old slave woman named Araminta Ross, for short Minty, was married to John Tubman, a free black man. When they approach Minty’s master, a plantation owner, showing the paperwork that documents that she should be free, he simply tears up the paper and proclaims that she will be his property, her children will be his property, and that was the end of it. That moment shows the utter brutality of slavery.

Minty runs away and makes her way to Philadelphia all by herself, taking advantage of the “underground railroad,” a system by which runaway slaves were helped in their journey north and to freedom. As was customary for freed slaves, they changed their names, and Minty picks the first name Harriet after her mother and Tubman after her husband. Rather than settling down in a life of work as a free black woman, she takes on the cause and becomes a crusader for other slaves. The eventually becomes one of the most successful “conductors” of the underground railroad, achieving fame and, among the slaveowners, infamy as “Moses,” a mysterious rebel who steals their slaves and guides them to freedom. As history tells us, she becomes one of the most famous freedom fighters of her time and a powerful female figure in our country’s history.

Harriet tells this story and illustrates the anguish and institutional injustice blacks have suffered throughout our history. Watching Harriet, I understood the incredible brutality of the system, our now proverbial “knee on the neck” of the people we subjugated for so long.

 

 

I have written a lot about slavery in this blog, and I will take the opportunity here to list some of those posts, as the are so appropriate at this time in our history. Please read them.

Visualizing  the Atlantic Slave Trade  – Some illustrations of what it was like to be on a slave ship.

Ben Carson’s Appalling Statements about Slaves – Our Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a black man, and a renowned brain surgeon, makes the dumbest comments ever. It’s not brain surgery, man!

Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – A great documentary story of what it’s like to be a slave.

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave – A good movie illustrating the horrific injustice suffered by slaves.

With Liberty and Justice for All – Eight of our presidents were slave owners. Here is the list.

Be Careful What You Post – Disgusting comments on social media by trolls, stating that slavery isn’t all that bad, and calling those of us that think it is “liberals.”

U.S. Population in 1776 and 1790 – Statistics on the United States population in those years and the percentage of blacks.

 

 

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Five former Special Forces soldiers (Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal), stuck in their humdrum lives get together one last time to rob the cash a drug kingpin in South America. After careful planning and reconnaissance, they go in for the heist and come out with much more money than they even planned.

Money, even in hundred dollar bills, has weight. If you have watched Better Call Saul lately, you will know that seven million dollars fill up two large duffel bags. Now imagine 200 million dollars. You need a freight helicopter to fly that out of the jungle. And that’s exactly what they use. The problem is, a jalopy helicopter in the South American jungle can’t be overweight to cross the Andes with passes over 11,000 feet to get to the coast of Peru. That’s when things start going wrong.

The story starts out like Ocean’s Eleven, where Ocean rounds up his buddies, one by one, for the big heist. It’s the same here, and a good part of the movie is spent introducing the characters in their mundane lives while the leader is convincing them to join the heist.

Overall, while the action kept me on the edge of my seat, it’s really an unrealistic movie with a lot of plot holes that kept distracting me.

Spoiler Alert

Just listing one: When the helicopter crashes in a jungle village, they have this huge pile of cash in bags that they need to carry over the mountains. They procure some mules to pack it out. But the journey is treacherous and nearly impossible. Why would they do that? They could simply hide the money in the mountain wilderness, take a single backpack full of cash, hike out without a load, and then return with a proper helicopter for the loot. That does not seem to occur to any of them.

In the last scene, one member of the team hands another a slip of paper, which sets the movie up for a sequel.

I also don’t understand why the movie is titled “Triple Frontier.” The title makes no sense to me, and I’ll likely have forgotten it in a few days.

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I have mentioned the movie Rambo: First Blood many times in this blog over the years. Just search for the keyword and you can find the various posts. The first time was all the way back in 2008, when I listed it as one of Three Timeless Movies. But I never gave it the honor of a review in all that time.

Rambo came out in 1982. It was based on the 1972 novel First Blood by David Morrell. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a returned Vietnam veteran who is drifting in the Pacific Northwest while looking for a buddy from he war. When he finally finds his home he learns that he had died of cancer a year before. Rambo learns he is the last survivor of his group of Green Berets, and he is devastated. He walks into the nearest town when the local Sheriff picks him up and immediately starts pushing him around. He eventually gets wrongfully arrested and abused by the small-town police force. Triggered by flashbacks of torture, his instincts take over, he overwhelms the untrained cops, and escapes the jail with nothing but the clothes on his back and a knife. As they chase him into the woods they quickly realize that they are not hunting him, he is hunting them.

Consistent with the cliché of what we’re expecting Rambo to be, we find a one-man army with nothing but a knife facing hundreds of local cops, state police, national guard and military all trying to contain him. One of the famous quotes of the movie is “Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe.” And exactly that he does.

There is a lot of shooting and brutal attacks in the story, but despite his notorious reputation, Rambo doesn’t actually kill anyone in First Blood. He just severely wounds and disables many people trying to hunt him down.

After Rambo: First Blood in 1982, there were many sequels. Rambo does a lot of killing in those. The franchise went on with Rambo: First Blook Part II, which Reagan saw and was famously recorded saying “Boy, after seeing ‘Rambo’ last night, I know what to do the next time this happens,” which was picked up by microphones placed in his office for a television and radio speech in 1985 but not carried in the broadcast.

Rambo: First Blood, in my opionion, is a surprisingly good movie. It’s a good innocent hero versus very bad cops story, where the hero kicks ass, gets justice, but eventually goes out with a whimper and the audience gets to feel good.

All other Rambo movies that followed it are no comparison at all, not even in the same league.

I watched Rambo: Last Blood a couple of days ago, and that prompted me watch Rambo: First Blood again and finally write the review it deserves, 38 years after it first came out.

 

 

Here is a good summary and review on Reddit with some excellent comments.

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It’s been almost 40 years since John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) had someone draw “first blood” on him when we has a young Green Beret who had come back from Vietnam, lost and abused. Here is my review of First Blood

Now an old man, Rambo lives on a dude ranch in Southern Arizona where he trains horses and raises the teenage daughter of a friend who calls him uncle. She was abandoned by her abusive father when she was young and lost her mother to cancer. When she finds out that her father lives in Mexico, she wants to visit him and get to know him. Against Rambo’s best advice, she slips away and finds her father. He cruelly rejects her, and in her grief, while barhopping in town, gets kidnapped by human traffickers.

Rambo is left with no choice but come and find her. What ensues is a one-man-war against an entire Mexican band of organized crime. While Rambo does not actually kill anyone in First Blood, he does not hold back in the subsequent movies, and Last Blood is full of gory detail, from decapitations to impaling, shooting, burning, and disemboweling. Revenge sees no limits in Last Blood. The demons that haunted the young Green Beret forty years ago are still torturing the old man.

I am sure they always will.

 

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It’s six years after Olympus has Fallen, when Allen Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) was the Speaker of the House and was Acting President during the terrorist crisis. Apparently, President Asher has served his two terms, and now Allan Trumbull is the President of the United States, and Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is his most trusted Secret Service agent.

There is a high-tech assassination attempt on the president while on a fishing trip. His entire Secret Service detail is killed, and only Banning survives and manages to save the president. He is wrongfully accused of the attack and arrested. After he escapes against all odds, it becomes clear to him that he has been set up. Alone on the outside, the entire U.S. law enforcement machine after him, the president in a coma in the hospital, Mike Banning goes on the offensive, saving the legitimate government from a coup at the highest levels.

While the action in Angel has Fallen is as intense (and unlikely) as in Olympus has Fallen, this is a somewhat better movie – that is – if you like the intense action hero style movies, where everyone gets killed and the hero gets beat up and scratched and shot and poked, but it never seems to stop him.

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A week ago, when browsing Netflix, we ended up watching Angel has Fallen, a 2019 film starring Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States and Gerard Butler, the hero, as Secret Service Agent Banning, who protects the president against all odds. At the time we didn’t realize that Angel has Fallen is the third of a trilogy starring Agent Banning. My review of Angel has Fallen is here.

Olympus has Fallen came out in 2013. The White House, under president Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), is taken over by ruthless Korean terrorists in a surprise attack from the air, on land and from inside. The president, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the joint chiefs all end up as hostages in a bunker under the White House. Former Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is the hero who enters the White House, and in the style of Die Hard, takes out one of the terrorists at a time. There is more at stake than just the lives of the president and his government, as the terrorists threaten to set off a nuclear holocaust in the United States. But in true superhero style, reminiscent of the Rambo or Die Hard movies, Agent Banning saves the day.

The Secret Service code for the White House is apparently “Olympus,” hence the title of the movie. It’s a constant barrage of military style shooting, helicopters and jet planes crashing, bad-ass terrorists killing hostages on TV and the good guys getting mowed down constantly. It does keep you on the edge of the sofa, through, and you can’t help but root for the hero.

Between Olympus has Fallen and Angel has Fallen, there was also a movie titled London has Fallen in 2016, which had worse ratings than the other two. I think I’ll skip “London.”

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Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is a street-smart lawyer who works out of the back of his car, a Lincoln. He has a – sort of – successful practice defending crooks, drug dealers, biker gangs and assorted low-lifers. Suddenly he gets a referral to defend a rich playboy who is accused of rape and attempted murder. He thinks this is his ticket to a better career. His connections help him sort out the case, but he quickly discovers that there is much more to the story than meets the eye.

The Lincoln Lawyer is based on the novel by the same name of Michael Connelly. After this book, Connelly wrote another five books in a series called the Mickey Haller books or the Lincoln Lawyer Books. Clearly, the movie is following an extremely well-crafted plot in the tradition of legal thrillers. I have not read any Connelly books yet, but it seems like I should.

Given the detailed plot and story line, and the thriller-like pace, The Lincoln Lawyer is a surprisingly good movie. When the credits rolled I knew I got more than I had expected. Good acting, suspenseful story, perfect plot, and the good guys win at the end.

What more can I ask for?

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John Prine Passed Away Today

I can’t say how sad I am to hear that John Prine passed away today.

The music world is full of tributes, and I can’t best them.

Here, once again, with tears in my eyes, is my favorite John Prine song.

Hello in There!

Hello!

 

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Based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the movie The Irishman shows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an Irish-American who lives in Philadelphia, tell his life story. The Martin Scorsese movie is three and a half hours long. So make sure you have ample time before sitting down for this one, or split it into two nights.

The story starts when Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran, is in a wheelchair in a nursing home, telling the story of how he started out as a truckdriver delivering meat, to becoming a hit man for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and a friend and confidante of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

The Irishman leads us through a few turbulent decades of American history and the mob’s involvement. Particularly the Kennedy Administration, how Kennedy got elected, Bobby Kennedy’s role, and eventually even Nixon are involved in the plot. Most of all, it gives deep insight into the thinking of the mob and the unions, and it’s not a pretty picture.

The acting is superb. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Ray Romano are at their very best. We have not one superstar actor in this film, but half a dozen of them, all doing an exemplary job.

The Irishman is shocking, exhausting to watch, long and drawn out, but hugely educational, and a history lesson.

I never knew much about Jimmy Hoffa, other than I knew that he was a union figure, and there was a movie about him (Hoffa, 1992, with Jack Nicholson). Now I know a lot more about Hoffa, and I’ll have to watch that movie too.

The Irishman is 209 minutes long, and 209 minutes worth watching.

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The Two Popes is a dramatization of what happened in 2013, when Pope Benedict VI (Anthony Hopkins) was the first pope to resign in over 700 years. Benedict was a conservative and, in religious aspects, a hardliner. He was elected during a time when Catholicism was under immense internal pressure and change.

Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) would eventually become Pope Francis, Pope Benedict’s successor. But he didn’t know that in 2012, when he traveled to Rome to submit his request to retire. He was one of Pope Benedict’s harshest critics and an activist in the church.

The Two Popes tells the life story of Jorge Bergoglio through the framework of the conversations between the two men over two days in Rome. The unlikely pair of adversaries became friends, and the rest is history.

Joseph Ratzinger, who would eventually become Pope Benedict, taught at the University of Regensburg in Germany in 1969, about the same time I was a school boy learning Latin in Regensburg. During one of my visits there a decade ago, when he was pope, I went to find his house in Pentling, right outside of Regensburg and just a few kilometers from the university. It’s an unassuming place, mostly behind a tall and grown-over wall of ivy and green. I never knew about him when he was active in Regensburg and later Munich as bishop, of course, and only studied up on him when he became der Bayerische Papst (the Bavarian Pope).

I am not a Catholic, and I am not a Christian, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Two Popes. Other than the doctrine and the thinking of Pope Benedict, I didn’t learn much about him. But I learned the entire history of Pope Francis, and while I have criticized him for many of the decisions he has made and the atrocities of the church that he has allowed to continue, I have gathered renewed respect for him through this movie.

And I feel solidarity: If I were pope, I would shun the red shoes too.

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DuPont is one of the world’s largest corporations, and apparently one of the world’s most brazen polluters.

Dark Waters starts when a farmer with a box of videos walks into a law firm asking for help. He has farmed his land all of his life, but when DuPont bought the land next to his farm and started a landfill, the water in his creek quickly became poisonous.  All the livestock on his farm is dying. He finds grotesque deformities and strange behavior.

This movie is inspired by this true story and sequence of events that takes us from the 1960s to the current time. Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is an attorney who works at a law firm in Columbus, Ohio defending DuPont. He eventually switches sides and takes on DuPont on behalf of the people in his home town in West Virginia. He is quickly ostracized by his peers, and even shunned by the townspeople. After all, DuPont is the main employer there, the company that puts bread on everyone’s table. They don’t want to know that the company also makes them all sick.

Reminiscent of Erin Brockovich or even Karen Silkwood’s true stories, Robert Bilott’s quest to get justice for his clients goes way beyond just a lawsuit.

We were shocked watching this movie, and we promptly, the next day, threw out our existing Teflon frying pans that we had been using for years and got new ones.

You just have to watch Dark Waters to find out why.

 

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I Confess

Warner Brothers, 1953, B & W, 91 minutes

Produced & Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Starring Montgomery Clift

This classic thriller is arguably the most underrated of Hitchcock’s films from the 1950’s. As hinted in the title, the film explores the dilemma posed by the Seal of the Confessional: after hearing the confession to a murder, a priest is torn between his civic duty to report the crime and his unconditional obligation to protect the privacy of the sinner. The plot was adapted from a play, Nos deux consciences (1902), by French author and journalist, Paul Bourde. Hitchcock’s adaptation is far removed from a typical detective yarn, since the identity of the murderer is revealed at the outset. The crime is promptly followed by a candid confession. From this ominous beginning, the drama unfolds at a glacial pace. The dénouement of the convoluted plot seems beyond reach as the unrivaled Master of Suspense deftly inserts twists and turns in an unpredictable sequence of events.

Montgomery Clift stars in the leading role as Father Logan, the priest who is burdened with the truth he is forbidden to reveal; Anne Baxter stars in a supporting role as his devoted friend and ally, eager to shield him from the ceaseless prodding of a determined inspector (played by the veteran Karl Malden), impatient to crack the case.

The action was filmed on location in Quebec City, with elaborate shots of church interiors. The melodramatic climax was filmed inside a historic landmark, the Chateau Frontenac.

The film was praised as well as criticized for its Catholic sensibilities (are there situations where even a priest is morally compelled to reveal the identity of a confessed criminal?). The reviews, for the most part, have tended to sidestep the gut-wrenching dilemma of the protagonist, focusing instead on Hitchcock’s casting and cinematography.

The film was a US submission to the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, but failed to win any awards. It is currently available in a Blu-Ray format from the WB Archive Collection.

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Goya’s Ghosts

Warner Bros. 2006, 2 hours

Directed by Miloš Forman

The title of the film is misleading: the story is less about the famous artist himself than about his social circle, about people whose lives are disrupted by the upheavals in Goya’s Era. Various personal dramas unfold against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. The central plot revolves around the fateful encounter of a corrupt priest with a young Jewish woman, one of Goya’s models. We witness the personal story of the cleric and his victim through the prism of a panoramic historical canvas. The fate of the protagonists is linked with the rise and fall of the Spanish Inquisition; the shifting fortunes of the régime in Spain are in turn linked to the reversals in Napoleon’s military campaigns. The Inquisition, dismantled after the French invasion of Spain, is promptly reinstated with its full powers after the expulsion of the French from Spain by the British.

What about Goya himself? What role does the famous artist play during this momentous period of social turmoil? Goya appears sporadically on the screen as various incidents unfold around him. Before the French invasion of Spain, his cozy rapport with the royal family emboldens him to challenge the Inquisition through his provocative sketches. But after the French invasion, his presence is less visible. He becomes more of an observer of events than a participant in them. The British restoration of the Old Order does nothing to restore Goya’s confidence in society. The “ghosts” which permeate the artwork of his later years express — quietly yet earnestly — his indictment of the violent repression of the popular cry for justice and freedom; and yet Goya never openly defies the ruling class. The film confronts the viewer with a disturbing question: Was Goya’s silence a mark of cowardice in the face of public corruption? Or was it a heroic but muffled outcry against the mistreatment of fellow human-beings?

The Swedish actor who plays Goya, Stellan Skarsgárd, is best remembered for portraying Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Jews from the Nazis. The director, Miloš Forman (best known for Amadeus), does not shrink from depicting with graphic realism the notorious interrogation methods of the Spanish Inquisition. The film remains dramatically compelling in spite of the mixed reviews it received on account of its convoluted plot and excessive violence.

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