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Archive for the ‘Two and a Half Stars’ Category

Twenty-one-year-old Mack McAsh and his twin sister are trapped working in the coal mines in Scotland in 1766. Coal miners work under the harshest possible conditions. The men go to work early in the morning and labor in the mines, picking the coal from assigned spots deep underground. The women and children then haul the coal on their backs up rickety staircases in the shafts. All day long. Every day except Sunday. Miners also have no way out. Often, through complex laws, they become lifelong slaves of the mine owners.

Lizzie Hallim is noble-born and therefore has a very different kind of life. However, while the miner’s oppression is simple, the fate of a noblewoman out of favor can be complex and just as brutal.

Mack escapes this fate and tries to make it on his own, first by escaping to London, then, through circuitous ways to the New World, a plantation in Virginia.

A Place Called Freedom follows these protagonists on their journey to escape injustice during a time of revolution. They are searching for a better life, a simple life, but above all, a life of freedom.

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Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize and was a Winner of the National Book Award. It’s definitely an acclaimed novel.

The story follows Cora, a slave girl in a Georgia cotton plantation. She is an outcast because her own mother ran away, thus abandoning her, leaving her “a stray.” As Cora grows up she tries to come to terms with her abandonment and she wishes she knew what happened to her mother.

Eventually another slave named Caesar, who came to the plantation from Virginia, asks her to escape with him. She accepts and follows the footsteps of her mother, off the plantation, just to be hunted by posses tasked to bring back “escaped property.” Cora’s journey from one state to the next is harrowing as she tries to stay ahead of one reckless and determined slave hunter.

In Underground Railroad the author does not just use the metaphor of what we know the Underground Railroad was, but rather he depicts it as an actual set of tunnels underground, connecting different cities and states, with concealed depots or stations maintained by station masters. I found this approach strange and unnecessary. The depictions of the antebellum American South, where the institution of slavery was one of the core structures of society, would have been enough in itself. A society where one class of humans was legally entitled to own another class of humans, to the point where they could abuse them sexually, sell off their children, split up families and work them to death without any hope of escape. Born a slave, always a slave.

The Underground Railroad brings that period of darkness in our history to the forefront, and reminds us here and now in 2021 that human rights still have a long way to go in America. We have little right to lecture other nations on human rights.

I have read and reviewed a couple of other books about slavery, and for your quick references they are listed here:

Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – by Harriet Jakobs | Norbert Haupt

Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin – by Harriet Beecher Stowe | Norbert Haupt

 

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Fern (Frances McDormand) is woman in her sixties. She spent her entire life with her husband, who was happy working in a sheetrock factory in northern Nevada. She was never able to realize her own dreams, because she was accommodating her – dreamless – husband. Then he died abruptly. When the sheetrock factory, pretty much the only employer in town, closed, the town died. Even the zip code was retired (true story).

Fern abandoned her house and life, and moved into her van, cruising the American west, including Nevada, Nebraska, South Dakota, California and Arizona.

This movie is carried by McDormand’s acting. Nothing happens. There are countless shots of desert with the sun setting in the distance among the stark mountain ranges that characterize the west. Fern keeps standing around, and walking around, in one encampment after another, with really nothing else going on. We are witnessing a nomad and we can’t really tell if she is happy.

McDormand won an Oscar for this performance. When she received it, she issued a howl, and many people didn’t know why. It turns out it was a tribute to the film’s sound mixer Michael Wolf Snyder who had passed only about a month earlier.

Another bit of trivia is that with Nomadland, McDormand now has more lead actress Oscars than Meryl Streep. Pretty impressive.

Nomadland is a boring movie, a depressing movie, where nothing really happens, but it makes you think about your own life nevertheless.

 

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Kodachrome is the brand name for a color reversal film introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1935. It was one of the first successful color materials and was used for both cinematography and still photography. Kodachrome film sales were discontinued in 2009 after nearly 75 years in use due to plunging sales and to the rise of digital cameras. There was one lab left in Kansas in 2010, and it was closing its doors.
This movie is based on A.G. Sulzberger’s 2010 New York Times article “For Kodachrome Fans, Road Ends at Photo Lab in Kansas.”
Famed photographer Ben Ryder (Ed Harris) is dying of cancer. He has a full-time nurse and assistant named Zooey Kern (Elizabeth Olsen) who takes care of his health needs, but he knows he only has a few months to live. He is completely estranged from his only son, Matt (Jason Sudeikis). They have not seen each other in many years, when Zooey appears at Matt’s job and tries to convince him to go on a road trip to Kansas with his father, so they can develop the last few rolls of film Ben has stashed away.
Ben is a cantankerous old man, crass, inappropriate and self-absorbed. He has neglected his family – and his son – all his life so he can advance his career. Father and son do not appear to be reconcilable, until Zooey pulls some strings. The three of them hop into Ben’s old convertible Saab in New York and head for Kansas.
Kodachrome is a road trip movie about an old dying guy who has one last wish. We have seen many of those before, and this one is as predictable as most of them. But we love our road trips, and we love to reminisce about them. Kodachrome touches that nerve, and it offers a tiny glimpse into the world and soul of an artist, whose profession drives him to be away from those he loves.

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Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a disgraced Swedish financial reporter. He was set up, basically innocent, but took on powerful people who didn’t like him. When he finds himself out of work with nowhere to go with his career, he takes on a dubious job from one of the wealthiest individuals in Sweden, industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christoper Plummer). The cover story is that he wants him to write his biography, but the actual objective is to find out what happened to Vanger’s niece, who disappeared without a trace 40 years earlier. He suspects one of the many eccentric family members killed her. When Mikael needs research help, he finds Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a 24-year-old hacker, who lives the life of a punker, but is an exceptional researcher and background checker. Lisbeth has her own demons to fight, but is ready to help Mikael.

This movie was produced in 2011. Oddly, I found another movie of the same title and based on the same book produced in 2009.

This film follows closely the plot of the novel by Stieg Larsson, which I reviewed here in 2010. Having now read the book and watched the movie, as usual, the book is way more detailed and descriptive than the movie, but both are reasonably good entertainment. If you checked my book review you will have noticed that I had decided not to read the other Larsson books, and ten years later I can say that I stuck with that decision.

The movie is rated R and not for the faint of heart. There are some really graphic torture and brutally violent rape scenes in this film that leave nothing to the imagination.

The story follows the plot of the novel closely, but even if you have read the book, the movie will be entertaining and fairly unique. We’re not used to watching action thrillers playing in “the old country” with its different mores and cultural norms.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Film Editing, and Rooney Mara was nominated for the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

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England’s King Henry IV was a tyrannical monarch who was involved in many wars. His oldest son Hal (Timothée Chalamet), the Prince of Wales, wanted nothing to do with his father and had no interest in the crown. The king had made plans for this second son to succeed him. While the king was on his deathbed, the younger son died in battle, and Hal had no choice but to ascend to the crown, becoming King Henry V. Palace politics and intrigues kept trying to entrap him, but he stood his ground. However, due to the machinations of courtiers, he was deceived into invading and attacking France, particularly as he considered himself to be the legitimate heir to the French throne too. The war in France was not easy, but he was victorious, largely due to the advice and experience of his friend and confidant, Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). Key to the invasion was the famous Battle of Agincourt.

There have been many history books written about the famed Battle of Agincourt. I always like to read historical fiction, as it provides colorful and tangible detail and makes history come alive. One such book was Agincourt – by Bernard Cornwell, which I reviewed here about a year ago. It goes without saying that you’ll learn a lot more about the battle and the historical details by reading the novel, but movies are good at fleshing out some of the imagery, the costumes, the living conditions and the times in general. The movie The King does that superbly. It is loosely based on the Shakespearean “Henriad” plays, but not specifically any one of them.

The Battle of Agincourt is described in Cornwell’s book from the perspective of the common soldiers and the knights, who were basically at the mercy of the young and inexperienced boy-king. In this movie, the entire story is told from the point of view of the king. A very different story indeed.

King Henry V lived from September 16, 1386 until August 31, 1422. He took the throne of England on March 21, 1413 at the age of 26 and ruled for only 9 years until his death at the age of 35. He died in war, but it is not clear exactly how. Some suspect dysentery, others heatstroke, as he had ridden all day in full armor in terrible heat that day. He is celebrated as one of the greatest warrior kings of medieval England. When he died, his infant son, only a few months old, became King Henry VI of England.

Just watching the movie, The King, would be entertaining, but learning all the historical background around that time in history makes it all worthwhile. So I definitely recommend The King.

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Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer in Mississippi during the Civil War. Rather than being a soldier in the Confederate Army, he chooses to be a medic, because he thinks that actually helps people. When his nephew is drafted and he asks for his help, he tries to save him to no avail. When his nephew dies in battle, a chain of events forces him to desert. He find refuge in the swamp with a group of runaway slaves. Safely hidden away, they gradually attract other deserters and farmers who have no interest in upholding a system that keeps the rights of rich people to own slaves. They secede from the Confederacy and form the Free State of Jones in the swamps of Jones County, Mississippi.

Their actions change local politics during and after the war, and have an impact far into the 20th century.

Free State of Jones is a hard movie to watch, as the cruelty against black slaves in the history of America is brought to the forefront. Racism still persists today in 2020 and watching this movie today illustrates the massive injustice that was and is being perpetrated in the name of race in the United States.

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It’s 2015 in Los Angeles. Poppy (Annie K. McVey) and her film crew are working on a documentary of homelessness in Los Angeles. As they walk the streets and parks where homeless people abound, they get approached by a man in an antique woolen brown uniform who speaks with an English accent. His name is Alistair (Guy Birtwhistle). He asks for their help. He is quick, in a nonchalant way, to tell his story: The last thing he remembers was being in the trenches in World War I in 1918, when a grenade hit. He flew through the air, and ended up landing on top of a shipping container in an industrial section of Los Angeles. He’s been here for a month and literally learned to live off the land, mostly by trapping squirrels in the park, which he roasts and eats.

He has a wife and a life in 1918, and he wants to get back. The film crew has a hard time believing him, and for the most part think he is a mentally ill person with a fantastic imagination. Only Poppy wants to believe him. She starts taking him in and tries to help him on his journey back.

Alistair1918 is a simple time travel story with an unlikely and far-fetched plot. But it works. Alistair acts like a man catapulted 100 years into the future, although he picks up modern skills astonishingly quickly. He seems to teach himself typing and learning how to use a computer and the Internet in record time. Cameras seem to come naturally to him. He is an excellent map reader and he seems to be able to figure calculations on the movement of worm holes (which are needed for time travel) very quickly. While the time travel technology is somewhat hokey, it works in this movie. The ending is surprisingly satisfying.

This is definitely a low-budget film, and as such quite successful. It was completed in 2015. Guy Birtwhistle wrote and produced the movie, and also starred as the male lead, Alistair. Annie K. McVey directed the movie, and also starred as the female lead, Poppy. With only a handful other actors, and very simple scenery, I would say Alistair 1918 is a successful, quirky, but enjoyable time travel movie.

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The History of Time Travel, filmed in 2014, is a fictional documentary about a man who invents the world’s first time machine. What is a “fictional documentary” you may ask?

The entire movie is being narrated by various “authorities” like the general shown above, as well as scientists, journalists, and others. The are being interviewed and they tell the story of Richard Page, a physicist who invents time travel. The story involves his wife and two sons, who eventually carry on his work. While the narrations take place, there are grainy scenes of the Richard and his contemporaries during various periods in history.

As you might surmise, a time machine will quickly attract the attention of the government and military organizations, as well as foreign adversaries, and they will do what they can to obtain the technology. With the technology being the ability to travel in time, things tend to get interesting.

There is no good synopsis to write for this movie without giving away its inherent cleverness. But clever it is. It does require careful attention, and I suspect it’s the kind of movie that would be best watched at least twice. It is now streaming on Netflix, so you can do just that.

Hint: It helps if you have busied yourself marveling about time travel, like I have, and I suspect I am rating it higher than I would otherwise.

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Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) is a middle-aged woman in 1985 who attends her 25th high school reunion. She has just separated from her husband Charlie (Nicolas Cage) who is also a member of her class. She runs into him at the reunion. The reunion does not turn out well for her, and she faints – and wakes up in high school in 1960, just before her own graduation. While she is her mature self, nobody else notices anything unusual and everyone treats her just like the teenager she is. She has all the knowledge she has gained throughout her life. After the initial shock and some adjustment, she realizes she might just have a chance to change things this time around. Of course, she treats cheating Charlie accordingly. But things get complicated quickly as one might expect.

Peggy Sue Got Married is a Francis Coppola film of 1986 that I had never before watched. Recently, during a Zoom meeting with a number of friends from high school in a virtual reunion, one of them brought up this movie as a nostalgic time travel story centered around reunions. That was the trigger for me to find and watch it.

I found it interesting that it came out right around the same time as the famous Back to the Future trilogy started, namely in 1985. There, Marty goes back 30 years into the past, to 1955, where Peggy Sue makes it to 1960. The experiences are quite similar in high school during that era.

I enjoyed the nostalgia of Peggy Sue Got Married. The movie has a lot of great scenes, it’s a little sappy at times, but the happy ending make it all worthwhile. If you haven’t seen it, I do recommend you find and watch it.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do it all over again? Would you, if you could?

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Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) is a single man who lives the life of the rich and famous on Wall Street. It’s just before Christmas, and he rushes to put together a billion-dollar merger the night of Christmas Eve, when he hears that his former girlfriend, Kate (Téa Leoni), has tried to call him after many years. On the way home he has a strange encounter in a convenience store, and eventually he goes to sleep in his penthouse apartment.

The next morning is Christmas Morning. He wakes up in the New Jersey suburbs with his wife Kate, two little children, and a life apparently very different from the one he knows. He rushes back to the city to go to work and finish the deal, but nobody recognizes him. He gradually figures out he is in an alternate universe, where he has a lesson to learn: How to be a family man.

But he can’t help himself, and he muscles his way back to the business world, while playing husband and father at home. Will it change him?

The Family Man first came out in 2000, but it is just as valid and amusing now in 2020. I enjoyed watching it. Nicolas Cage is a very versatile actor and along with Téa Leoni, he tells an entertaining story with a happy ending.

 

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General McMahon (Brad Pitt) is a four-star general in the U.S. Army. He is a badass, he has the reputation of a tough soldier, his men admire him, and his country sends him to Afghanistan with a mission to …. do exactly what?

He is supposed to clean up the mess left after eight years of war and no strategic plan to win. But he can do it! There is no political will or support at any level to help him get the job done. His soldiers are tired and disillusioned. None of them believe in the mission they were sent to accomplish.

But yes, if they want him to liberate the country, he is going to liberate the shit out of the country, no matter what. So he forges ahead.

War Machine is a comedy, albeit a tragic one. It tells the story we have seen since 2001 on TV, night after night, starting with Bush, continuing with Obama, and on with Trump. We’re building a nation in Afghanistan, right!

I chuckled, I laughed, and I was sad and disheartened, because what I watched was satire.

Satire as real as life itself.

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It’s 1975 in Rhode Island. Small-time thugs Deuce (Theo Rossi) and Chucky (Clive Standen) are holding up pawn shops and jewelry stores, when they get the idea to rob two banks in the same day. But for that, they need help. They join forces with Gerry Ouimette (Don Johnson), also called “The Frenchman” in mob circles. Deuce and Chucky quickly get sucked into the New England mob underworld, where bosses run their empires out of prison cells.

Rather than robbing banks, Gerry has bigger plans, like stealing thirty million dollars directly from the mob by taking down a private vault hidden in a Providence fur storage business. This eventually turns out to be one of the largest heists in U.S. history.

Based on a true story, Vault is a view into the world of the mob in the 1970ies, and the life and times of the people getting sucked up by that world, including the women that somehow find it desirable to get involved with these guys. Vault is entertaining, at times comical and definitely thought-provoking.

After watching this movie, I was glad to go to bed in my middle-class house in my middle-class world.

Whew.

 

 

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I didn’t know what The Old Guard was about when I started watching it. For the first half hour I was completely confused and I was not able to follow the plot. I was close to turning it off when it finally came around.

Andy (Charlize Theron) leads a group of highly trained fighters and mercenaries who have obviously worked together for a long time. They only take on jobs that are for the good of mankind, or so it seems. What is odd about them is that they are immortal. They get shot or stabbed, and literally, within minutes they start healing rapidly, get up and fight right on. They are the ultimate weapon. Nobody knows how and why they have this gift and why it works. They also have a telepathic connection, where they sometimes can feel and see each other’s dreams.

When a pharma tycoon finds out about them, he sets a trap to capture them in order to study them and hopefully extract the secret of immortality. Suddenly their mission is not to save someone else, but it’s to get themselves out of the clutches of the murderous scientist who will stop at nothing to get his will.

The Old Guard has a slow start and is characterized by extreme violence and brutality. At times it feels like a video game rather than a movie. The plot is complex and confusing. When I was done watching, I felt like watching it again to appreciate it more and fill in the many blanks. The end sets it up nicely for a sequel.

 

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Just three days ago I finished reading and reviewed The ’86 Fix. It’s a time travel story, and I gave it a pretty dismal review and only one and a half stars. The story was “okay” but the ending was so bad, it really disappointed me. That’s when I realized I was simply set up for a sequel. When I wrote that review, I stated that I wasn’t going to read any more books by this author, let alone the sequel.

But since I was interested in what might happen to Craig Pelling next, just for kicks, I downloaded the preview anyway. After reading about five percent of the book, I changed my mind. Beyond Broadhall is the sequel to The ’86 Fix.

I just finished it, and it’s a better book. It’s getting 2.5 stars.

The story picks up right where the first book stops. It’s now 2017. Craig is in a mental hospital, basically imprisoned, for eleven months, while counselors and psychiatrists try to figure out what’s wrong with him and set him on a course to release him into society.

As soon as Craig is free, he starts researching, trying to find his parents, his wife Megan, his coworkers, and his nemesis Marcus. He realizes that rather than “fixing” things during his visit to 1986, he did far more damage to many innocent people’s lives than he could ever have dreamed. As revelation after revelation comes to him, he gets more and more disturbed – and wiser. When he finds his father, who is now a very decent man, and very helpful to his cause, he figures out that he didn’t really need to go to the past to “fix” things. He has the power right here and now.

Here is the problem with The ’86 Fix and Beyond Broadhall. They are not really two books. They are one book. The author should have put them together back to back, making them twice as long. Then he should have edited out about 25% of the fluff and boring stuff that wasn’t necessary, and it would have been a surprisingly entertaining and complete story. The total letdown of the first book, the terrible ending, would have just been one setback to the protagonist in the middle of the story, and it would not have been that bothersome. It would have also saved the author some awkward “backfilling” he had to do to give the reader of the second book enough knowledge for it to stand on its own. But then, I do not believe that anyone would read the second book without having read the first one.

I don’t have a problem with series of books. Some are done quite well. For instance, the Harry Potter books are a good example, or the “Pillars” series by Ken Follett. Each book can stand on its own. You don’t have to read the first one to enjoy the second one, even though in most cases, people will read them in sequence.

The ’86 Fix and Beyond Broadhall are not two separate books. They are one longer book with some boring passages, but a pretty entertaining story.

My advice to the author would have been to repackage the two into one.

So, if you want to read a low-tech time travel story that provides some lessons about what life is all about and how the decisions we make affect us and all those around us, buy both of those books, and read them back to back, without skipping a beat between the two. And you’ll have yourself a comfortable read.

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