“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

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“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

I tried to think of a number of movies about the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the Hollywood Blacklist I have seen. And to be honest, I can only think of two of which I have never finished and two of which I did. One of those movies I did finish was the 2015 biopic about Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo.

Based upon Bruce Alexander Cook’s 1977 biography, the movie covered fourteen years of the screenwriter’s life – from being subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 to 1960, when he was able to openly write movies and receive screen credit after nine to ten years of being blacklisted by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Protection of American Ideals. Due to this time period, it was up to production designer Mark Rickler to visually convey fourteen years in Southern California – from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. I must say that he, along with cinematographer Jim Denault and art directors Lisa Marinaccio and Jesse Rosenthal did an excellent job by taking advantage of the New Orleans locations. That is correct. Certain areas around New Orleans, Louisiana stood for mid-century Los Angeles, California. But the movie also utilized a few locations in Southern California; including a residential house in northeastern Los Angeles, and the famous Roosevelt Hotel in the heart of Hollywood. And thanks to Denault’s cinematography, Rickler’s production designs not only made director Jay Roach’s “Southern California” look colorful, but nearly realistic. But one of my minor joys of “TRUMBO” came from the costume designs. Not only do I admire how designer Daniel Orlandi re-created mid-20th century fashion for the film industry figures in Southern California, as shown in the images below:

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I was especially impressed by Orlandi’s re-creation of . . . you guessed it! Columnist Hedda Hopper‘s famous hats, as shown in the following images:

image7 Women-of-Trumbo14-e1458032178821

I have read two reviews for “TRUMBO”. Both reviewers seemed to like the movie, yet both were not completely impressed by it. I probably liked it a lot more than the two. “TRUMBO” proved to be the second movie I actually paid attention to about the Blacklist. I think it has to do with the movie’s presentation. “TRUMBO” seemed to be divided into three acts. The first act introduced the characters and Trumbo’s problems with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, leading to his being imprisoned for eleven months on charges of contempt of Congress, for his refusal to answer questions from HUAC. The second act focused on those years in which Trumbo struggled to remain employed as a writer for the low-budget King Brothers Productions, despite being blacklisted by the major studios. And the last act focused upon Trumbo’s emergence from the long shadow of the blacklist, thanks to his work on “SPARTACUS” and “EXODUS”.

I have only one real complaint about “TRUMBO”. Someone once complained that the movie came off as uneven. And I must admit that the reviewer might have a point. I noticed that the film’s first act seemed to have a light tone – despite Trumbo’s clashes with Hollywood conservatives and HUAC. Even those eleven months he had spent in prison seemed to have an unusual light tone, despite the situation. But once the movie shifted toward Trumbo’s struggles trying to stay employed, despite the blacklist, the movie’s tone became somewhat bleaker. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured the screenwriter’s clashes with his family over his self-absorbed and strident behavior towards them and his dealings with fellow (and fictional) screenwriter Arlen Hird. But once actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger expressed interest in ignoring the Blacklist and hiring Trumbo for their respective movies, the movie shifted toward a lighter, almost sugarcoated tone again. Now, there is nothing wrong with a movie shifting from one tone to another in accordance to the script. My problem with these shifts is that they struck me as rather extreme and jarring. There were moments when I found myself wondering if I was watching a movie directed by two different men.

Another problem I had with “TRUMBO” centered around one particular scene that featured Hedda Hopper and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer. In this scene, Hopper forces Mayer to fire any of his employees who are suspected Communists, including Trumbo. The columnist did this by bringing up Mayer’s Jewish ancestry and status as an immigrant from Eastern Europe. This scene struck me as a blatant copy of one featured in the 1999 HBO movie, “RKO 281”. In that movie, Hopper’s rival, Louella Parsons (portrayed by Brenda Blethyn) utilized the same method to coerce – you guess it – Mayer (portrayed by David Suchet) to convince other studio bosses to withhold their support of the 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. Perhaps the filmmakers for “TRUMBO” felt that no one would remember the HBO film. I did. Watching that scene made me wonder if I had just witnessed a case of plagiarism. And I felt rather disappointed.

Despite these jarring shifts in tone, I still ended up enjoying “TRUMBO” very much. Instead of making an attempt to cover Dalton Trumbo’s life from childhood to death, the movie focused upon a very important part in the screenwriter’s life – the period in which his career in Hollywood suffered a major decline, due to his political beliefs. And thanks to Jay Roach’s direction and John McNamara’s screenplay, the movie did so with a straightforward narrative. Some of the film’s critics had complained about its sympathetic portrayal of Trumbo, complaining that the movie had failed to touch upon Trumbo’s admiration of the Soviet Union. Personally, what would be the point of that? A lot of American Communists did the same, rather naively and stupidly in my opinion. But considering that this movie mainly focused upon Trumbo’s experiences as a blacklisted writer, what would have been the point? Trumbo was not professionally and politically condemned for regarding the Soviet Union as the epitome of Communism at work. He was blacklisted for failing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Also, the movie did not completely whitewash Trumbo. McNamara’s screenplay did not hesitate to condemn how Trumbo’s obsession with continuing his profession as a screenwriter had a negative impact upon his relationship with his family – especially his children. It also had a negative impact with his relationship with fellow screenwriter (the fictional) Arlen Hird, who wanted Trumbo to use his work for the King Brothers to express their liberal politics. Trumbo seemed more interested in staying employed and eventually ending the Blacklist. I came away with the feeling that the movie was criticizing the screenwriter for being more interested in regaining his successful Hollywood career than in maintaining his politics.

“TRUMBO” also scared me. The movie scared me in a way that the 2010 movie, “THE CONSPIRATOR” did. It reminded me that I may disagree with the political or social beliefs of another individual; society’s power over individuals – whether that society came in the form of a government (national, state or local) or any kind of corporation or business industry – can be a frightening thing to behold. It can be not only frightening, but also corruptive. Watching the U.S. government ignore the constitutional rights of this country’s citizens (including Trumbo) via the House Committee on Un-American Activities scared the hell out of me. Watching HUAC coerce and frighten actor Edward G. Robinson into exposing people that he knew as Communists scared me. What frightened me the most is that it can happen again. Especially when I consider how increasingly rigid the world’s political climate has become.

I cannot talk about “TRUMBO” without focusing on the performances. Bryan Cranston earned a slew of acting nominations for his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo. I have heard that the screenwriter was known for being a very colorful personality. What is great about Cranston’s performance is that he captured this trait of Trumbo’s without resorting to hammy acting. Actually, I could say the same about the rest of the cast. Helen Mirren portrayed the movie’s villain, Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper with a charm and charisma that I personally found both subtle and very scary. Diane Lane gave a subtle and very convincing performance as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, who not only stood by her husband throughout his travails, but also proved to be strong-willed when his self-absorption threatened to upset the family dynamics. Louis C.K., the comic actor gave a poignant and emotional performance as the fictional and tragic screenwriter, Arden Hird.

Other memorable performances caught my attention as well. Elle Fanning did an excellent job portraying Trumbo’s politically passionate daughter, who grew to occasionally resent her father’s pre-occupation with maintaining his career. Michael Stuhlbarg did a superb job in conveying the political and emotional trap that legendary actor Edward G. Robinson found himself, thanks to HUAC. Both John Goodman and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gave colorful and entertaining performances as studio head Frank King and Trumbo’s fellow convict Virgil Brooks, respectively. Stephen Root was equally effective as the cautious and occasionally paranoid studio boss, Hymie King. Roger Bart gave an excellent performance as fictional Hollywood producer Buddy Ross, a venal personality who seemed to lack Robinson’s sense of guilt for turning his back on the blacklisted Trumbo and other writers. David James Elliot gave a very interesting performance as Hollywood icon John Wayne, conveying the actor’s fervent anti-Communist beliefs and willingness to protect Robinson from Hedda Hopper’s continuing hostility toward the latter. And in their different ways, both Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel gave very entertaining performances as the two men interested in employing Trumbo by the end of the 1950s – Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.

I noticed that “TRUMBO” managed to garner only acting nominations for the 2015-2016 award season. Considering that the Academy Award tends to nominate at least 10 movies for Best Picture, I found it odd that the organization was willing to nominate the likes of “THE MARTIAN” (an unoriginal, yet entertaining feel-good movie) and “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” (for which I honestly do not have a high regard) in that category. “TRUMBO” was not perfect. But I do not see why it was ignored for the Best Picture category, if movies like “THE MARTIAN” can be nominated. I think director Jay Roach, screenwriter John McNamara and a cast led by the always talented Bryan Cranston did an excellent job in conveying a poisonous period in both the histories of Hollywood and this country.

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Favorite Films Set in the 1940s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1940s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1940s

1-Inglourious Basterds-a

1. “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this Oscar nominated alternate history tale about two simultaneous plots to assassinate the Nazi High Command at a film premiere in German-occupied Paris. The movie starred Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent and Oscar winner Christoph Waltz.

 

2-Captain America the First Avenger

2. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) – Chris Evans made his first appearance in this exciting Marvel Cinematic Universe installment as the World War II comic book hero, Steve Rogers aka Captain America, who battles the Nazi-origin terrorist organization, HYDRA. Joe Johnston directed.

 

3-Bedknobs and Broomsticks

3. “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) – Angela Landsbury and David Tomilinson starred in this excellent Disney adaptation of Mary Norton’s series of children’s stories about three English children, evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz, who are taken in by a woman studying to become a witch in order to help the Allies fight the Nazis. Robert Stevenson directed.

 

4-The Public Eye

4. “The Public Eye” (1992) – Joe Pesci starred in this interesting neo-noir tale about a New York City photojournalist (shuttlebug) who stumbles across an illegal gas rationing scandal involving the mob, a Federal government official during the early years of World War II. Barbara Hershey and Stanley Tucci co-starred.

 

5-A Murder Is Announced

5. “A Murder Is Announced” (1985) – Joan Hickson starred in this 1985 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1950 novel about Miss Jane Marple’s investigation of a series of murders in an English village that began with a newspaper notice advertising a “murder party”. Directed by David Giles, the movie co-starred John Castle.

 

6-Hope and Glory

6. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote and directed this fictionalized account of his childhood during the early years of World War II in England. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

 

7-The Godfather

7. “The Godfather” (1972) – Francis Ford Coppola co-wrote and directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel about the fictional leaders of a crime family in post-World War II New York City. Oscar winner Marlon Brando and Oscar nominee Al Pacino starred.

 

8-Valkyrie

8. “Valkyrie” (2008) – Bryan Singer directed this acclaimed account of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson starred.

 

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9. “Pearl Harbor” (2001) – Michael Bay directed this historical opus about the impact of the Pearl Harbor attack upon the lives of three people. Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Harnett and Cuba Gooding Jr. starred.

 

10-Stalag 17

10. “Stalag 17” (1953) – Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote this well done adaptation of the 1951 Broadway play about a group of U.S. airmen in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, who begin to suspect that one of them might be an informant for the Nazis. Oscar winner William Holden starred.

 

9-The Black Dahlia

Honorable Mentioned – “The Black Dahlia” (2006) – Brian DePalma directed this entertaining adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1987 novel about the investigation of the infamous Black Dahlia case in 1947 Los Angeles. Josh Harnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank starred.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

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“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

The year 2015 seemed to be a big year for cinematic spies. At least three movies have been released about the world of espionage. And one is scheduled to be released some three months from now. One of the movies that was already released was Guy Ritchie’s big screen adaptation of the NBC 1964-1968 television series called “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”.

The television series from the 1960s began with its two main characters – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – already working for the international intelligence agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Ritchie’s film is basically an origin story and tells how Napoleon and Illya first became partners in the espionage business. Set in 1963, “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” begins in East Berlin, where professional thief-turned-C.I.A. Agent Napoleon Solo is tasked with retrieving a young woman named Gaby Teller and escorting her to West Berlin. Gaby is the daughter of an alleged Nazi scientist-turned-U.S. collaborator, who has disappeared a year or two ago from the United States. Tasked with stopping Napoleon from achieving his goal is a highly skilled K.G.B. agent named Illya Kuryakin.

Although Napoleon’s mission is a success, he is ordered by his C.I.A. handler Saunders to work with Illya and Gaby to investigate a shipping company owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra, a wealthy couple of Nazi sympathizers. Due to the couple’s intent to create their own private nuclear weapon, the C.I.A. and K.G.B. have decided to make this operation a joint effort. Gaby becomes essential to the mission, since her uncle Rudi works for the Vinciguerras.

Mixed reviews greeted “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” when it first hit the theaters. Well, according to Wikipedia, the movie achieved mixed reviews. Judging from box office results, the movie barely made a profit. It seemed a pity that not many moviegoers were willing to take a chance on this film. Then again, I am not that surprised. Warner Brothers Studios barely made any effort to publicize this movie. And this was a mistake in my eyes. Today’s generation of young moviegoers are not familiar with the 1960s television series. In fact, the series had not been seen on the television screen since TNT Channel aired a handful of episodes back in 1996. The studio could have stepped up its game in publicizing the film. They could have also used re-released box sets of the old series at a reasonable price as tie-ins. And some moviegoers old enough to remember Norman Felton’s series, complained that the movie was not an exact replica. I have nothing to say about that. Well, I do. But that will come later.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” is not perfect. Actually, what movie is? And I do have one or two minor complaints and a major one. Okay, minor complaints. I was not that impressed by Daniel Pemberton’s score for the movie’s second half. I found it overbearing to the point that it nearly distracted me from the plot. My second complaint revolved around James Herbert’s editing. Well, I was impressed with his editing in most of the film . . . especially the car chase in East Berlin and the sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s break-in of the Vinciguerras’s shipyard. But I was not impressed by Herbert’s editing in the final action sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s attempt to rescue Gaby from a fleeing Alexander Vinciguerra. I found it slightly confusing and thought it had too many close ups. In fact, the sequence reminded me – in a negative way – of Paul Greengrass’ direction of the second and third “BOURNE” movies.

However, my main beef with “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” proved to be Joanna Johnston’s costume designs. The movie is supposed to be set in 1963. The costumes DID NOT reflect the fashions of that year. I kid you not. The following image is an example of women’s fashion in 1963:

Look at the images of Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debecki:

I cannot deny that Joanna Johnston’s designs are both original and gorgeous to look at. But . . . they are not a reflection of the movie’s 1963 setting. Judging from Vikander and Debecki’s costumes, I would say that the movie was actually set some time between 1968 and 1970 or 1971. And in the end, the movie’s costumes only reminded me of the costume mistakes featured in the 2011 movie, “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s plot written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. I have always wondered how Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin first met and started working for U.N.C.L.E. The television series never revealed this history, considering it began with the pair already working for the agency. And Rictchie and Wigram’s plot more than satisfied my curiosity. They made some changes from the television series. One, Napoleon became a former thief whom the C.I.A. blackmailed into working for them in exchange for avoiding prison. In some ways, this newly imagined Napoleon Solo reminded me of the Alexander Mundy character from the 1968-1970 television series, “IT TAKES A THIEF”. The Illya Kuryakin character underwent a few changes as well. He remained a somewhat stoic anduber professional agent, with a penchant for the occasional sardonic humor. But Ritchie and Wigram gave him a fearsome temper that was usually triggered by anything relating to his father, who had been dishonored by a scandal during World War II.

Ritchie and Wigram’s script not only utilized a bit of “IT TAKES A THIEF”, but also some characters from the TV version of “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” It seemed obvious to me that the Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra were based on the Gervaise Ravel and Harold Bufferton characters that were portrayed by Anne Francis and John Van Dreelan in two Season One episodes. And fighting neo-Nazis is a theme that has permeated many spy movies and television shows throughout the years. Especially neo-Nazis with nuclear weapons. In fact, I just saw a Season One episode of the 60s’ series called (1.05) “The Deadly Games Affair” in which a former Nazi who tried to kick start a crazy plot to bring back the former glory of Hitler’s party. For “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, I thought Ritchie and Wigram created an interesting twist on theme, by incorporating the Swinging Sixties scene in Europe . . . especially through characters like Victoria Vinciguerra and Gaby’s Uncle Rudi. As for the movie’s dialogue . . . well, I just adored it. I especially adored the interaction between Napoleon and Illya – especially in one scene in which they argued over the right wardrobe for Gaby to wear during their mission.

Speaking of performances, I tried to recall a performance that seemed . . . well, off kilter or just plain bad. Perhaps other critics came across such performances. I did not. Armie Hammer had an interesting task in his portrayal of K.G.B. agent Illya Kuryakin. He had the difficult task of conveying many aspects of Illya’s personality – his no-nonsense attitude, ruthlessness, emotional streak and barely controllable temper. And he did it . . . with great skill. I cannot recall if David McCallum ever had to deal with such an array of personality traits and blend them so seamlessly. Henry Cavill made an extremely charming Napoleon Solo. More importantly, he did an excellent job in conveying the character’s talent for manipulation and judge of character. I realize that his Napoleon Solo seemed more like an adaptation of the Alexander Mundy character. But watching his performance made me realize how much he reminded me of Robert Vaughn’s performance in the NBC series. Alicia Vikander, who portrayed Gaby Teller, proved to be such a surprise for me. One must understand that I have never seen “A ROYAL AFFAIR”. And I honestly do not recall her performance in “THE FIFTH ESTATE”. But I was very impressed by her performance as East German defector Gaby Teller, who turned out to be vital to Napoleon and Illya’s mission. Vikander connected very well with both of her leading men, especially Hammer. And she did a great job in conveying Gaby’s intelligence, toughness and strong will.

Hugh Grant pretty much took me by surprise with his performance as Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. He was charming and witty, as usual. Of course, as usual. He is Hugh Grant. But he was also effective and projected a strong presence as U.N.C.L.E.’s pragmatic leader, who is ruthless enough to make some tough choices. When I first saw Elizabeth Debicki in “THE GREAT GATSBY”, I was very impressed by her performance. I was even more impressed by her portrayal of the villainous Victoria Vinciguerra. She conveyed a great deal of charm, style and wit in her performance. I also thought Debicki made a scary villain. Hell, she was one of the scariest villains of the Summer 2015 season. I was surprised to see Sylvester Groth, who played Gaby’s Fascist uncle. The last time I saw him, he portrayed Nazi Joseph Goebbels in 2009’s “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”. And he was funnier. He was a bit more scary as Gaby’s snobbish, yet sadistic Uncle Rudi. But he was also very funny . . . especially in his last scene in the movie. The movie also featured Jared Harris, whose take on a C.I.A. station chief seemed more like a spoof on American authority figures, along with solid performances from Luca Calvani, Simona Caparrini and Christian Berkel (who also appeared in “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” had a few flaws. This is to be expected for just about any movie. And yes, I realize that it is not an exact replica of the NBC 1964-1968 series. Mind you, I could care less, for I believe originality is more important than repetition. And that is what I liked about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” Director Guy Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram took an old television series and put their own original spin on it. And they were ably supported by a first-rate cast led by Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill.

Top Favorite WORLD WAR II Movie and Television Productions

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September 1-3 marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939; the German Army invaded Poland on the orders of its leader, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a week following the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. While the Polish military struggled to keep the invading Germans at bay, its government awaited awaited expected support and relief from France and the United Kingdom, with whom they had a pact. Two days later on September 3, Poland’s two allies declared war on Germany and World War II; which ended up engulfing both Europe, Asia, North Africa and the South Pacific; began.

Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the war.

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR II MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1a - Band of Brothers

1a. “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced this outstanding television miniseries about the history of a U.S. Army paratrooper company – “Easy Company” – during the war. Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston starred. (tie)

1b - The Pacific

1b. “The Pacific” (2010) – Spielberg and Hanks struck gold again in this equally superb television miniseries about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge – in the war’s Pacific Theater. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred. (tie)

2 - Kellys Heroes

2. “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) – Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles starred in this memorable war comedy about a group of Army soldiers who go AWOL to rob a bank behind enemy lines. Brian G. Hutton directed.

3 - Inglorious Basterds

3. “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this excellent alternate history adventure about two plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent starred.

4 - Casablanca

4. “Casablanca” (1942) – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman starred in this Oscar winning adaptation of Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s un-produced stage play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie also starred Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.

5 - The Winds of War

5. “The Winds of War” (1983) – Dan Curtis produced and directed this excellent 1983 television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel. The miniseries starred Robert Mitchum, Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali McGraw.

6 - Hope and Glory

6. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote, produced and directed this 1987 excellent comedy-drama about his own childhood experiences during World War II. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

7 - A Bridge Too Far

7. “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) – Sir Richard Attenborough produced and directed this darkly fascinating adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Operation Market Garden campaign. The all-star cast included Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal and Gene Hackman.

8 - Valkyrie

8. “Valkyrie” (2008) – Bryan Singer directed this detailed and first-rate account of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. The movie starred Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy.

9 - The Longest Day

9. “The Longest Day” (1962) – Darryl Zanuck produced this all-star adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Normandy invasion. The cast included Robert Mitchum, Richard Beymer, Robert Wagner and John Wayne.

10 - The Bridge on the River Kwai

10. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) – David Lean directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1952 World War II novel. The movie starred William Holden, Oscar winner Alec Guinness and Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa.

HM - Empire of the Sun

Honorable Mention: “Empire of the Sun” (1987) – Steven Spielberg produced and directed this excellent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel about a British boy’s experiences in World War II China. The movie starred Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers.

“INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” (2009) Review

Below is my review of ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, the latest movie written and directed by Quentin Tarantino: 

 

“INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” (2009) Review

I have rather mixed feelings about director Quentin Tarantino’s work. I have not seen all of the movies that he has directed. And of the movies that I have seen, I can name only two or three I would consider favorites of mine. One of those favorites happened to be his latest – ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, a World War II comedy-melodrama (I do not know how else to describe the movie) about two attempts to assassinate Nazi leader Adolph Hitler during a movie premiere in occupied Paris.

Thinking about ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, it occurred to me that its premise struck a familiar note. It bears a strong resemblance to last year’s ”VALKYRIE”, a thriller about the last attempt to kill Hitler by a group of high-ranking German Army officers. But unlike Bryan Singer’s movie, ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” featured two separate plots to kill Hitler that ended with a particular twist.

In order to present a detailed account of these two accounts, Tarantino divided his story into five chapters. The first chapter introduced Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a notorious S.S. officer known for hunting and finding refugee Jews in Austria and occupied France. He appears at a French dairy farm in search of a missing Jewish family named Dreyfus. After threatening to punish the dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) hiding the family, Landa manages to have them all killed, except for the 18-19 year-old Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who escapes due to Landa lacking bullets in his revolver. Chapter Two opens in early 1944 and introduces U.S. Army Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee hillbilly, who has recruited a group of Jewish-American soldiers to kill and mutilate as many Nazi soldiers they can get their hands on behind enemy lines in occupied France. By the time they have recruited Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), a former German soldier set to be punished for killing 13 S.S. soldiers, the “Basterds” have created a reputation as butchers by the German high command.

Shosanna returns to the story in Chapter Three, as the owner of a Parisian movie theater. Her theater is chosen to host the premiere of ”A Nation’s Pride , one of Joseph Goebbels’ (Sylvester Groth) propaganda films about the exploits of a German war hero named Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) . . . after Zoller meets and becomes attracted to Shosanna. The theater owner realizes that the movie premiere is the perfect place for her to get revenge for the deaths of her family and she plots with her lover and projectionist, Marcel (Jacky Ido) to burn down the theater with the moviegoers locked inside. In Chapter Four, British intelligence learns about the premiere from one of their agents – popular German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and her plans to have the German high command assassinated. They send one of their operatives to France – German speaking Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) – to meet up with the Basterds and von Hammersmark and go along with her assassination plans. Unfortunately, the meeting goes awry due to an encounter with some German soldiers and a Gestapo officer named Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl). Raines and von Hammersmark are forced to make some changes in their assassination plot. Chapter Five featured the movie’s finale as Shosanna’s movie theater, where the two plots to kill Hitler and the Nazi high command weave in a series of revelations, betrayals, death and sacrifice and end with a surprising plot twist.

”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, like some of Tarantino’s films, turned out to be a prime example of how several unconnected subplots merge into one major plot or goal. In the case of this particular movie, the goal to assassinate Hitler and the Nazi high command. I have noticed that in movies like ”PULP FICTION” and ”JACKIE BROWN”, Tarantino likes to use nonlinear storylines. This does not seemed to be the case in ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”. In fact, he carefully introduced the characters and the story in a straight, linear fashion in Chapters One to Four. Once the finale unfolded in Chapter Five, Tarantino pulled the rug from under moviegoers with several surprising plot twists that left me reeling. And by the time the last scene ended, only two major characters and a supporting character were left standing. Another aspect about ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” that I found enjoyable was its mixture of humor, drama, suspense and action. Well, most of the action featured massive shootings, a major fire, stabbings, strangulation and mutilation. And the ironic thing is that the percentage of action featured in the film was minor in compare to the number of scenes dominated by dialogue. This should not be surprising, considering that many of Tarantino’s films seemed to feature more dialogue than action. Aside from one or two scenes, this did not bother me at all. I think it had something to do with the fact that I found many of the characters in ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” fascinating.

If there is one thing you can count on a Quentin Tarantino film, it is bound to feature a cast of some interesting characters and performances. I suspect that Lieutenant Aldo Raine will go down as one of my favorite characters portrayed by Brad Pitt. The movie never explained Raine’s dislike and hostility toward the Nazis. But his recruitment speech to his “Basterds” made it clear that he disliked them . . . intensely. He even makes sure that his men know that he expects each of them to take at least 100 Nazi scalps. And he literally means scalps. Also, Pitt did an excellent job of expressing not only Raine’s dislike of the Nazis, but also his ruthlessness, sadism and ornery streak. And as long as I remember this movie, I will always relish Pitt’s Tennessee accent and the way he says ”Nat-sees”. Another performance I will certainly remember is Christoph Waltz’s superb performance as the soft-spoken, yet sinister Waffen-SS-turned-SD officer Colonel Hans Landa. The Nazi officer, known for successfully hunting down refugee Jews, is clearly the movie’s main antagonist, yet watching Waltz portray this guy is a joy to behold. He does not resort to the usual clichés about Nazi characters. Instead, his Landa is a polite, humorous and yet, sadistic man who enjoys putting his victims through psychological torture. His interrogations of the French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, Shosanna and even Raine are prime examples of this. Only with Raine, I think he may have met his match. It is not surprising that Waltz received the Best Actor Award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

However, Pitt and Waltz are not the only ones who provided some memorable performances. I really enjoyed Mélanie Laurent’s performance as the intense and vengeful Shosanna Dreyfus. Not many critics seemed impressed by her performance, but then Shosanna is not exactly what one would call an in-your-face role. I could also say the same about Diane Kruger’s role as the German-born film star, Bridget von Hammersmark. Her role as the anti-Nazi spy for the British is not as colorful as some of the other roles in the film, but it is certainly more complex and interesting than her performances in the ”NATIONAL TREASURE” movies and ”TROY”. I heard a rumor that Kruger had fought for the role of von Hammersmark. Judging from the way she seemed to relish in her role that seem very obvious. Another low key, yet complex performance came from Daniel Brühl as the war hero-turned film actor Fredrick Zoller. He did an excellent job in conveying a genuine attraction to Shosanna, along with his frustration over her cold attitude toward him. He also seemed embarrassed and slightly ashamed of his heroics that led to the deaths of many American soldiers in Italy. Yet, he loves the celebrity that he has managed to acquire as due to his “war heroics”. I was also impressed by Michael Fassbender as the British intelligence officer, Lieutenant Archie Hicox, who was selected to assist von Hammersmark and the Basterds in the plot to kill Hitler. I enjoyed Fassbender’s sharp performance as the British officer as a suave “George Saunders” type, whose command of the German language is perfect, but not his knowledge of German regional accents. And Til Schweiger was perfect as Hugo Stiglitz, the psychotic German soldier whose dislike of the Nazi regime led him to murder 13 Gestapo officers before joining Raine’s group of “Basterds”. He was hilarious, yet frightening in the Chapter Four sequence that featured von Hammersmark’s rendezvous with his fellow Basterd Corporal Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard ) and Hicox. Schweiger’s struggle to keep his temper and murderous impulses in check during their encounter with Major Hellstrom was fascinating to watch. Apparently actor-writer-producer Eli Roth does not have a great reputation as an actor. Even I could see that he was no great shakes as an actor. Yet, the role of the violent and obnoxious Staff Sergeant Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz seemed to fit him like a glove. Roth did a pretty good job in conveying Donowitz’s funny, yet psychotic nature.

Before one would assume that I consider ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” as an example of cinematic perfection, I must admit there were a few aspects of the film that troubled me. There were moments when the pacing seemed a bit too slow for me. I thought that Tarantino had lingered on the conversation between Colonel Landa and Perrier LaPadite longer than necessary. I suspect that this scene was merely a showcase for Landa’s talents as an investigator and his penchant for psychological sadism. Unfortunately, I found myself longing for it to end before it actually did. Another scene that seemed to stretch longer than necessary featured Bridget von Hammersmark’s meeting with Hicox and two of the Basterds inside a tavern in Chapter Four. The scene began with the actress engaged in a guessing game with German soldiers celebrating the birth of one of their colleagues’ son. In fact, the actress is forced to play this same game with Major Hellstrom, Hicox and the Basterds when the Gestapo officer insists upon remaining at their table. Now, I realize that the presence of the German soldiers played a major role in Chapter Four. But honestly . . . I found the game a bore and thought it dragged what was otherwise a superb scene.

My last quibble centered around Lieutenant Raine’s men – the “Basterds”. Aside from Hugo Stiglitz and Donny Donowitz, we never really got a chance to really know the Basterds. Most of them were given brief spotlights, but not enough to really satisfy me. After all, the movie is named after their group. Of the other “Basterds” – Wilhelm Wicki, Smithson Utivich, Omar Ulmer, Gerold Hirschberg, Andy Kagan, Michael Zimmerman, and Simon Sakowitz – at least three of them were given brief spotlights. And Tarantino never revealed what happened to the rest of them. I also understand that Tarantino had attempted to recruit Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone to create the movie’s score. The composer rejected the offer, due to the film’s sped-up production schedule. Instead, Tarantino utilized some of Morricone’s tracks from previous films into the movie’s soundtrack. I only hope that Tarantino did this with the composer’s permission.

As for the technical aspects of ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, I believe that Tarantino did a solid job in consolidating the cinematography, production designs, costume designs, and special effects to create a first-rate movie. But I must admit that I found myself especially impressed by Tarantino’s own script that featured a straight, linear story that concluded in a very surprising manner. I was also very impressed by the visual effects supervised by Gregory D. Liegey and Viktor Muller . . . especially during the final sequence that featured the movie premiere.

I might as well say it . . . I really enjoyed ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. It is one of the very few movies I have really enjoyed this summer and this entire year so far. It featured an excellent story with some surprising twists and a superb international cast led by Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent. And considering my mixed views on Tarantino’s body of work that has to be saying something. Hell, I have already seen it so many times that I stopped keeping count.

“VALKYRIE” (2008) Review

“VALKYRIE” (2008) Review

When I had first learned that ”VALKYRIE”, a movie about the final assassination attempt upon Adolf Hitler, would be released on Christmas Day . . . I was surprised. Honestly. And my response had nothing to do any opinion I have about the film. Let me explain. 

One has to understand that ”VALKYRIE” had gone through a great deal of turmoil to get made. Whatever problems the movie’s production had encountered, its biggest obstacle turned out to be the casting of Tom Cruise in the lead role of Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the architect of this last assassination attempt that occurred on July 20, 1944. Many German politicians had protested against the idea of a practicing Scientologist like Cruise portraying someone who has become regarded as a hero for his opposition against Hitler. Even members of von Stauffenberg’s family had joined in the protest. The filmmakers of ”VALKYRIE” initially had difficulty setting up filming locations in Germany due to the controversy, but they were later given leeway to film in locations pertaining to the film’s story, such as Berlin’s historicBendlerblock. Also, Cruise’s popularity with the American public has sunk over the past three years. Considering that many of the negative comments about the actor seemed to have stemmed from his Scientology beliefs, it seemed to me that religious bigotry had played a large role in the hard feelings against him.

Early in 2008, MGM/United Artists released trailers of ”VALKYRIE”. Personally, I found them impressive and I was happy to learn that the movie was scheduled June 2008 theater release. But due to the poor response to the trailers and MGM/United Artists’s initial marketing campaign, the studio executives moved the movie’s release date from June 2008 to February 2009. I was surprised to learn that ”VALKYRIE” had another black mark against it – namely director Bryan Singer. He had built a reputation as a first-rate director with movies such as ”THE USUAL SUSPECTS” and the first two films from the ”X-MEN” franchise. Unfortunately, his reputation hit a snag when the release of the over-budgeted”SUPERMAN RETURNS” failed to impress the critics and make a profit for the studio that released it. I figured that MGM/United Artists was simply going to allow ”VALKYRIE” languish in the theaters during the off season following Christmas, never to be heard of until its DVD release. Thankfully, MGM/United Artists proved me wrong. A few months ago, the studio executives announced that ”VALKYRIE” would be released on Christmas Day for the movies holiday season. When the film was finally released, I rushed out to see it as soon as I possibly could.

As I had earlier stated, ”VALKYRIE” told the story of the July 20, 1944 plot by German army officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Ever since the years before World War II, there had been a growing number of dissidents that viewed Hitler as the wrong man to be Germany’s leader. This opposition; which included German officers like Ludwig Beck, Henning von Tresckow and Claus von Stauffenberg; led to a series of assassination attempts on Hitler – including one plotted by von Tresckow in March 1943. By September 1943, one of the dissidents, General Friedrich Olbricht, recruited Lieutenant-Colonel von Stauffenberg into their ranks. It was his plan – code name ”Valkyrie” – that led to the last attempt to kill Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. Directed by Bryan Singer, the movie stars Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg. The cast also includes Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Jamie Parker, Eddie Izzard, Christian Berkel, David Schofield, Kevin McNally, Thomas Kretschmann and Tom Wilkinson. Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander wrote the screenplay.

I might as well get around to it and reveal my opinion of ”VALKYRIE”. In a nutshell . . . I loved it. Which surprised me a great deal. I had expected to like ”VALKYRIE”, considering the cast, the director and the subject matter. Or at least find it interesting. I had no idea that I would end up experiencing a gauntlet of emotions while watching it. Mere curiosity was the only emotion I had felt while the movie introduced the main characters and revealed the incidents that led to von Stauffenberg’s decision to join the conspiracy against Hitler. By the time the movie focused upon the assassination attempt and the coup against the S.S., I felt myself growing tense with anxiety and anticipation. By the time the conspirators’ plot began to unravel, the tension I felt had been replaced by dread. And when von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were being captured and executed, I watched the scenes unfold with tears in my eyes. Curious.

The excellent performances by the cast happened to be one of the reasons why ”VALKYRIE” struck such an emotional chord within me. This is one of the reasons why I like Bryan Singer as a director. He knows how to utilize his cast – whether each performer has a major role or not. And Singer made the best of what proved to be a first-rate cast. I could go into details about every actor or actress in the cast, but I must admit that a handful managed to catch my attention. One member of the cast turned out to be Thomas Kretschmann, who portrayed Major Otto Ernst Remer, head of a Reserve Army battalion. The actor’s sardonic portrayal of Remer amused me to no end. Tom Wilkinson gave a top-notch performance as General Friedrich Fromm, head of Germany’s Reserve Army in Berlin. Wilkinson did an excellent job of portraying the treacherous general with a slight touch of sympathy. Another actor that caught my attention was Jamie Parker. He portrayed Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, an adjutant to von Stauffenberg who helped the latter carry out the plot. Parker did a great job in portraying von Haeften’s intense loyalty to von Stauffenberg. In fact, he and Cruise managed to create a strong screen chemistry together. Terence Stamp was excellent as the reserved, yet strong-willed Ludwig Beck, a former Army general whose opposition against Hitler began in the late 1930s and served as the conspirators’ figurehead. Bill Nighy portrayed General Friedrich Olbricht, Chief of the Armed Forces Replacement Office (Wehrersatzamt) at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and the original architect of the plan, Operation Valkyrie. It was Olbricht who had recruited von Stauffenberg into the conspiracy. For the past five to six years, I have always regarded Nighy as some kind of chameleon. And with his performance, he did an excellent job of revealing at both the vacillating and stalwart sides of Olbricht’s nature.

But the true focus of ”VALKYRIE” was Claus von Stauffenberg and it was Tom Cruise’s job to make this man believable to the audience. Some critics have complained that Cruise had failed to capture the essence of von Stauffenberg’s character as an aristocrat. Many of them blamed this on the actor’s American accent. Personally, I find this criticism to be a load of crap. After all, the 1988 version of ”DANGEROUS LIAISONS” featured American actors portraying French aristocrats . . . with American accents. And I do not recall any complaints about their performances. I especially find the criticisms against Cruise ludicrous, considering that most of the cast featured British actors – using accents from all over the British Isles. What was my view of Cruise’s performance as Claus von Stauffenberg? I thought he was excellent. His portrayal of the German Army officer was that of a hero – and a very stalwart one at that. On the other hand, Cruise also did a first-rate job of capturing von Stauffenberg’s arrogance – a trait that was probably a by-product of his aristocratic background. This trait also managed to get the officer into a great deal of trouble even before his participation in the assassination attempt. But . . . most of the critics were too busy being distracted by Cruise’s American accent, while paying scant attention to the British accents of many of the other accents. Go figure.

Anyone familiar with Claus von Stauffenberg or the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler would have known the outcome of the movie’s story. I certainly did. But despite my knowledge of the outcome, I found myself being caught up in the suspense of the story, thanks to Bryan Singer’s direction and the screenplay written by Christopher MacQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. I had assumed that most of the story would center on the conspirators’ plotting and set up of the assassination attempt. I had no idea there was more to the story surrounding the incident – namely the coup perpetrated by von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators against Hitler and the S.S. Nor did I have any idea that knowing how the story would end, I would find myself rooting . . . hoping that the conspirators would succeed in their plans. Or escape Hitler’s wrath. The only hiccup in the movie – at least for me – was the introduction of Major General Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) into the story. I found it confusing. Was he already part of the conspiracy when von Stauffenberg first approached? Or what? For me, it was only misstep in an otherwise superb script.

With a first-rate cast led by Tom Cruise, along with Christopher MacQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s script, Bryan Singer directed an exciting and suspenseful tale that managed to tap into a great deal of emotions for me. From my personal view, I believe that ”VALKYRIE” is one of the better movies of 2008.

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review
Based upon James McBride’s 2003 novel and directed by Spike Lee, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” told the story about four black soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division who get trapped near a small Tuscan village on the Gothic Line during the Italian Campaign of World War II, after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy. The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre, perpetrated by the Waffen-SS.

Before I saw the movie, I came across a few reviews of the film. Needless to say, it either received mixed or bad reviews. Many critics either found the movie’s plot incoherent or seemed turned off by Lee’s message about the racism encountered by African-American troops during World II. After seeing the movie, I must admit that I also have mixed feelings about it.Personally, I had no problem with the plot. It started with a the murder of an Italian immigrant by a black U.S. Postal Service in December 1983. Due to the investigations of the New York Police, and a rookie journalist portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the postal worker is revealed to be one of the four American troops who foundd themselves trapped near the Tuscan village. This same veteran is also discovered to have a piece of Italian sculpture in his possession. As I had stated earlier, most film critics found the plot confusing. Aside from certain scenes that I felt should have been deleted, the plot turned out to be perfectly coherent to me. What Lee did was take certain subplots that focused on the four troops, the inhabitants of the Tuscan village, the Nazi’s search for an AWOL German troop and a group of Italian partisans; and drew them together to form the finale of the movie’s mystery surrounding the veteran-turned-postal worker and the Italian sculpture. I must admit that aside from a few scenes, Lee did an excellent job in bringing this all together.And the director had a good, solid cast to help him bring this movie together. Derek Luke (“LIONS FOR LAMB” and “ANTWONE FISHER”) and Michael Ealy were especially impressive as the disciplined and tightly coiled Aubrey Stamps and the cynical and slightly bitter Bishop Cummings – who vie for the attentions of a local Italian woman named Renata, portrayed by Valentina Cervi. Laz Alonso gave a solid performance as the Puerto Rican corporal Hector Negron, forced to keep the peace between Stamps and Cummings. I was also impressed by Pierfrancesco Favino as Peppi Grotto, the leader of the local partisan group. Like many other child actors I have noticed in recent years, Matteo Sciabordi surprised me with an excellent performance as the young Angelo Torancelli, who befriends the four soldiers, while trying not to remember the horrible massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema. At first I was slightly wary about Omar Benson Miller’s performance as Sam Train, the private who first saves young Angelo in the film’s first half. He came off as rather raw and inexperienced to me. But further along into the film, his performance improved. And I realized that his performance had never been at fault. Only the screenplay written by author McBride. Miller had the unfortunate bad luck to slough his way through some pretty horrible dialogue, early in the film.Speaking of the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the aspects of the film I barely found tolerable. At least in the movie’s first half hour. I wish that Spike Lee had discovered this lesson a long time ago – never hire the author of the novel you are adapting to write the screenplay. Producer Dan Curtis had also failed to learn this lesson when he hired author Herman Wouk to write “THE WINDS OF WAR” screenplay. As much as I enjoyed how the movie’s plot developed, there were some scenes or pieces of dialogue I could have done without. For example:

*Axis Sally’s attempt to demoralize the black troops crossing an Italian river – despite the scorn heaped upon the dear lady by the black American and German troops alike, I must have spent at least five minutes squirming in my seat. Ugh!

*Private Train’s determination to convince his companions that the young Angelo is blessed with some kind of divine gift. Honestly, his dialogue drove me crazy. James McBride should have been ashamed of himself.

*Sergeant Stamp’s speech about the difficulties of being an African-American soldier during the war

*The flashback featuring the four soldiers’ encounter with a bigoted ice cream parlor owner in Louisiana.

The last two turned out to be perfect examples of another one of the film’s flaws – namely Lee’s heavy-handed portrayal of racism in the U.S. Army, during World War II. A part of me wishes that the director had watched Carl Franklin’s adaptation of“THE DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS” (1995). That particular movie was an excellent example of portraying racism in the past, without pounding in the message. Lee, on the other hand, overdid it. He allowed the message to get in the way of the story at least twice. When Stamps received a message from their Southern-born captain to capture a German soldier for question, this sends the usually obedient Stamps went into a rant about how black troops were treated. It was simply unecessary. Lee forgot another rule in filmaking – you show, not tell. He managed to do that with the troops’ dealings with their Southern-born captain. But he could not stop there. He and McBride also included the flashback in Louisiana . . . something that added nothing to the story’s plot. It felt like a propaganda piece added at the last minute by the filmakers.

Despite some of the bad dialogue, unecessary scenes and the ham-fisted message on racism, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” turned out to be a better film than I had originally perceived. Although the film critics had been correct in some of their complaints, I found it hard to agree with them that the movie’s plot was incoherent. Even before halfway into the story, I understood what McBride and especially Lee were trying to achieve. I say . . . give it a shot. It might surprise you.