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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.

 

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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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If you ever want to know what happened to Jesse of Breaking Bad after the end of the series, when Walter White was killed, El Camino is the movie to watch.

Through a series of scenes going forward after Walter’s death, and via many flashbacks, El Camino brings back the full cast of characters, Jesse, the hapless Todd, Skinny, Badger, and definitely Mike. There is also a flashback appearance of Mr. White and Jesse in a coffee shop, which is priceless.

I watched El Camino right after watching the second episode of Better Call Saul, and before watching the third, and the whole series, with El Camino in the middle, brings me back to 12 years ago when Breaking Bad was breaking really bad in this country.

El Camino is a “must watch” for anyone who followed the Breaking Bad craze. And while this review is not about Better Call Saul, I have to say: The current (and last) season of Better Call Saul, which is the immediate prequel to the Breaking Bad series, is the best of Better Call Saul ever. You must see that one too.

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Movie Review: Parasite

Parasite made Oscar history:

Parasite is the film that took home the most awards at the Oscars 2020, winning four Academy Awards at tonight’s Oscars including Best Picture, Directing, International Feature Film and Writing (Original Screenplay). Not only that, but it also became the first non-English language film in Oscar history to win the award for Best Picture.

Oscar.go.com

Of course, with this much attention on a film, we had to go back and see it. I had never seen a Korean film and while I  was afraid that the subtitles would get in the way, I was immersed within minutes and forgot about the whole foreign language thing altogether. I was in the movie all the way through.

The story is about two families:

The Park family is in Korean’s upper class. The father is an young entrepreneur and the head of his company. He gets driven to work by a chauffeur in his Benz. They live in an upscale neighborhood in an opulent, modern house that has won awards for its architecture. His wife is beautiful, pampered, overprotective of her children, and has obviously never had to worry about anything serious in her life, other than being a socialite, planning elaborate parties, and worrying about what her friends would think about her and her family. The teenage daughter is smart, worldly, and is getting tutoring in English. The little boy is a spoiled terror and the entire family is under his playful thumb.

The Kim family is on the other side of the spectrum of society. They live in a basement apartment in the seedy part of town. Their main living room window faces out into the alley at eye level, where drunks regularly urinate right in front of them. The father (Song Kang Ho, who is generally understood to be the top Korean actor of his generation) is a loser. He has no job, no prospects of work and seemingly no ambition beyond somehow cheating the system wherever he can, including mooching off the WiFi of the neighbors in the building. His obedient wife does what she can to support the family. The two of them have taught their kids well in the way of gaming the system. The son and daughter are early college-age but neither are enrolled, even though both are resourceful, smart, energetic and ambitious. They have learned their father’s way well. The family ekes out a living by folding cardboard pizza boxes from the flat delivered shape to a usable form by the cooks. And they can’t even get a simple task like that right, and end up with 25% rejection rate.

Through a fortuitous connection, and by his sister helping him forge a diploma, with their father’s admiration and blessing, the Kim son gets a job tutoring the Park daughter in English. While on the job, he learns that the family is looking for a new art tutor for the little boy.  He manages to install an acquaintance, who is, unbeknownst to the Park family, his sister. Within a short time, the entire Kim family is employed by the Park household as tutors, driver and housekeeper. The Parks have no idea that all their employees are one family. Except the little boy, when he notices that the driver and the housekeeper smell the same.

Under wealthy Korean homes there are often bunkers for protection from war and disaster induced by the North Koreans. The Parks apparently don’t know they have such a bunker below their basement. However, in that bunker lives a man who has been there for years. A parasite. And here is where it starts getting complicated.

Parasite portrays the income diversity of society and how the rich can afford to be oblivious to the real problems and needs of the people. The poor are forced to fight for every scrap, and they end up being hardworking, resourceful and creative in making a living. We feel the constant humiliation of the poor and unfortunate, and how they deal with this continuous pressure and struggle to overcome it.

The movie is 132 minutes long. At every turn there is a surprise. I never knew what would happen next. This is DEFINITELY NOT HOLLYWOOD.  The storytelling is superb, and the twists seem to never end. Even the last 30 seconds left me wondering what might happen next. When the credits finally rolled I wondered what had just happened. This was different than any movie I had ever seen. This was a glimpse of a culture I knew little about. I had just heard more spoken Korean in the last two hours than in my entire life before combined. And I felt I had just watched a great movie. The Oscars were deserved.

You should go and see it.

 

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Movie Review: Casablanca

The movie Casablanca is 78 years old and is renowned to be one of the best movies of all time. It seems to show up in all lists within the top five, and everyone knows it as a classic. So it may come as a surprise when I tell you that I had never before watched Casablanca, and other than having a picture in my mind of an airplane in a fog and people in white suits surrounding it, I really knew nothing about it.

Yesterday I watched Casablanca with a group of about 15 other movie buffs, a number of whom had watched it many times before. I feel odd actually describing such a classic here, but I must at least make a cursory effort:

It’s early in World War II. The Germans have invaded France and occupied Paris, and they are making their first incursions into North Africa. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is a jaded former freedom fighter. He had had a love affair with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), a beautiful woman in Paris, just before the German invasion. When they were going to escape together, she unexpectedly abandoned him at the train station. Rick never got over losing the love of his life. A year later, in 1942, he runs a nightclub in Casablanca and his life is turned upside down when Ilsa suddenly walks in with a famed rebel leader, seeking to escape the Nazis and travel to America.

While I have a lot of respect for all the people who admire Casablanca and praise it one of the greatest movies of all time, frankly, it didn’t do much for me. Yes, it is a very well-crafted story, yes, the casting and acting are superb, and yes, it tells a story of what it was like in World War II in North Africa, where corruption and money made things happen and ordinary people were crushed. I could not quite connect or get into the story, and I found myself observing myself watching a classic. I certainly can’t imagine wanting to watch it again.

“So here’s looking at you, kid.”

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