“AQUAMAN” (2018) Review

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“AQUAMAN” (2018) Review

Following the failure of “JUSTICE LEAGUE” to storm the box office during the fall of 2017, Warner Brothers Pictures and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) turned to the franchise’s sixth installment to carry it and the studio to both financial and especially critical glory. That movie proved to be 2018’s “AQUAMAN”

The character of the DC Comics superhero, Aquaman aka Arthur Curry has made extensive appearances in both television and movie animations. His biggest role proved to be one of the main characters of the 1973-1986 Saturday morning animated series, “SUPER FRIENDS”. The character also made occasional appearances in the live-action WB (later, the CW) series, “SMALLVILLE”. The WB had plans for a series about Aquaman, starring Justin Hartley (who later became known as Oliver Queen aka the Green Arrow on “SMALLVILLE”), but nothing came from it. In the end, it took Zack Snyder to bring Aquaman to the fore as a live-action figure, when he cast actor Jason Momoa in the role for the DCEU franchise. “AQUAMAN” would prove to be Momoa’s third appearance in the franchise, after a brief cameo in 2016’s “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” and a more prominent role in “JUSTICE LEAGUE”, the following year. However, “AQUAMAN” is the first film to feature Momoa as the lead in a DCEU film, but also the first movie that is actually about the “King of the Seven Seas”.

Directed by James Wan, “AQUAMAN” is a two-fold story that explores the drama behind Arthur Curry’s family conflicts. The movie also told how Arthur aka Aquaman went on a quest to prevent his half-brother King Orm Marius from uniting the seven undersea kingdoms in order to inflict war upon the surface world. The story begins in 1985, when a Maine lighthouse keeper named Tom Curry rescues a woman who has washed ashore during a storm. The mysterious woman turns out to be Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis, who had left her ocean world to escape an arranged marriage to another member of Atlantean royalty, Orvax. Both Tom and Atlanna fall in love, marry and conceive a child, whom they name Arthur. Unfortunately, Atlantean soldiers manage to find Atlanna. She decides to leave Tom and Arthur behind and return to Atlantis in order to protect them from Orvax’s wrath.

Over thirty years later, Arthur has become known as the metahuman vigilante, Aquaman. Months after the Justice League’s defeat of Steppenwolf, Aquaman prevents a group of pirates led by the father-son team, Jesse and David Kane, from hijacking a Russian Naval Akula-class submarine. Jesse dies during the confrontation with Aquaman, while David, vows revenge against the hero. Meanwhile, Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm of Atlantis attempts to convince King Nereus of Xebel to help him unite Atlantis and the other ocean kingdoms for an attack against the surface world for for harming the Earth’s oceans. Orm also hopes to solidify his position as Atlantis’ king. Nereus’s daughter and Orm’s fiancee, Princess Mera, heads to the surface to recruit Arthur in stopping Orm’s plans against the surface world and to present himself as the true king of Atlantis.

Over a year had passed between the release of “JUSTICE LEAGUE” and “AQUAMAN”. I noticed that many film critics and moviegoers seemed willing to heap lavish praise on the 2018 film, following the other movie’s poor performance and lack of critical acclaim. I will be honest . . . I did not dislike “JUSTICE LEAGUE”. I had mixed feelings about it. I still do. But I must admit that “AQUAMAN” is a better film. To a certain extent. “AQUAMAN” is a curious mixture of a family drama, a political film, an Indiana Jones-style adventure and the usual “save-the-planet” scenario.

For me, the best aspect of “AQUAMAN” is the family drama that centered around Queen Atlanna. David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall did an excellent job in conveying the consequences of Atlanna’s initial refusal to be dragged into an arranged marriage. Her actions resulted in eventual exile and possible death for her, two sons in conflict with each other, a political vacuum and one of her sons becoming a future costumed hero. The political vacuum left by Atlanna also led to an exciting and action-filled search for a missing magical artifact – the Trident of Atlan, which used to belong to Atlantis’ first ruler and had been missing his disappearance. This search would lead Arthur and Mera on a picturesque journey from the Mediterranean region to the depths of the ocean’s most elusive worlds, the Kingdom of the Trench.

I also liked the fact that Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall’s screenplay did not rush in conveying Orm’s story arc. They did not rush his efforts to solidify his position on the Atlantean throne or his efforts to convince or coerce the rulers of the other ocean kingdoms to acknowledge and join him in the attack against the surface. And what seemed to be the cherry on the top of this particular story arc is that the two screenwriters managed to utilize Aquaman’s other major nemesis – David Kane aka Black Mantis – into Orm’s story arc. In doing so, the two screenwriters and director James Wan managed to establish David Kane’s own origin story and major conflict against Aquaman for future movies. But what I really liked about “AQUAMAN” is that instead of the outsider or the interloper of a royal court being the main villain, he is the main protagonist. In other words, the main protagonist is the one who shakes up a society and not the villain. I found this refreshing after movies like “THOR” and “BLACK PANTHER”.

Another aspect of “AQUAMAN” that I enjoyed was the film’s visual styles. Bill Brzeski did an excellent job as the film’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in not only re-creating Atlantis and other ocean worlds . . . to an extent. I also enjoyed his designs for those scenes that especially featured Arthur and Mera’s adventures in both the Sahara Desert and especially Sicily. Don Burgess’ cinematography did a great job in enhancing Brzeski’s work. This especially seemed to be the case for his photography of the shooting locations in Australia, Morocco and Italy. I am going to be frank. I am not a big fan of the traditional Aquaman suit . . . at least for Jason Momoa. From a visual perspective, I believe the suit he wore in “JUSTICE LEAGUE” worked better for him. But I must admit that I did enjoy Kym Barrett’s designs for the costume worn by Momoa in the Sicily sequence. And I especially enjoyed Ms. Barrett’s costumes for the other Atlantean and Xebel characters. Especially those costumes worn by Amber Heard. However, the one aspect of “AQUAMAN” that truly impressed me were the visual effects for the Atlantis scene created by the Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) team led by Jeff White. I mean . . . oh my God! Those visual effects truly blew me away with the sharp colors, beauty and originality, as seen in the images below:

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How on earth did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences fail to nominate White and the ILM team for their work in this film? It is simply criminal that the organization had failed to do this.

The performances featured in “AQUAMAN” struck me as either first-rate or solid. I would certainly describe Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Arthur Curry aka Aquaman as first-rate. One, the guy has charisma and presence oozing out of his pores. And two, Momoa did a great job in utilizing both his comedic and dramatic skills, when required by the screenplay. However, a part of me wishes there had been more of a balance between comedy and dramatic scenes for the actor. Another first-rate performance came from Amber Heard, who portrayed Princess Mera of Xebel. If I must be honest, I had been impressed by the way she had taken control of her performance in “JUSTICE LEAGUE”. Her portrayal of Mera as a strong-willed and commanding personality seemed even stronger in this film. “AQUAMAN” features the second time I have seen Patrick Wilson portray a villain. In this film, he gave a strong and intimidating portrayal of Aquaman’s half-brother, King Orm Marius aka Ocean Master. Wilson’s character was not as . . . amusing as his character in 2010’s “THE A-TEAM”, but I must admit that he did a great job in conveying Orm’s arrogance and bigotry. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II portrayed the film’s other villain, sea pirate-tech specialist David Kane, who will become one of Aquaman’s biggest nemesis, Black Mantis. Since he was not the main villain, his presence was not as extensive. But I cannot deny that Abdul-Mateen gave a very intense and memorable performance. I really look forward to seeing him in future DCEU films.

“AQUAMAN” also featured strong, yet solid performances from the supporting cast.  Those performances include Nicole Kidman, who portrayed Arthur’s mother Queen Atlanna; Temeura Morrison as Arthur’s father, Tom Curry; Willem Dafoe, who portrayed Arthur’s mentor Vulko; Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus of Xebel; Michael Beach as Jesse Kane, pirate leader and father of the future Black Mantis; and Graham MacTavish, who provided the voice for Atlan, the first king of Atlantis. I also wanted to point out Randall Park, who gave a rather funny and entertaining performance as Dr. Stephen Shin, a marine biologist obsessed with finding the lost city of Atlantis. I was surprised to discover that the movie also featured voice performances from the likes of Julie Andrews, Djimon Hounsou and John Rhys-Davies.

As much as I enjoyed “AQUAMAN”, I had some problems with the film. My biggest problem proved to be director James Wan. I realize that he has managed to establish a positive reputation from the horror flicks he had directed in the past. The problem is that there were times when I found his direction rather clunky. A good example would be the film’s opening scene that featured the introduction of Aquaman’s parents. It struck me as a bit rushed.

Utilizing slow motion scenes can annoy me in any movie. But what I found particularly annoying in “AQUAMAN” was that Wan did not use slow motion in action scenes. Instead, he used it for shots featuring Momoa in various poses . . . as if he was some kind of fashion magazine model. Also, it seemed as if Wan was incapable of going from action to drama to comedy in a seamless way. Perhaps he will be able to flow his scenes a little better as he become more experienced, but I did not sense such a skill in “AQUAMAN”.

Also, I am a little . . . confused about Queen Atlanna’s position in Atlantis society. Was she the ruling monarch when she first met Tom Curry? Was she ever the ruling monarch? Or did Atlantis society forbade women sovereigns and would only allow the royal spouses of a direct female heiress or sovereign to be considered for the throne? The movie never made it clear. According to the movie, one of Orm’s major reasons for planning an attack upon the surface world was humanity’s pollution of the ocean. Aside from one minor sequence featuring news reports of piles of garbage washing up on many beaches, I feel the movie did not explore the topic of pollution as much as it should have, considering IT WASone of Orm’s reasons to attack humanity.

I realize that “AQUAMAN” is at the moment, the DCEU franchise’s most successful film. It is the only one that has managed to earn over a billion dollars so far. But do I consider it the best in the franchise? Not really. Between James Wan’s uneven direction, some plot points regarding the Queen Atlanna character and the film’s use of the pollution topic; it did not quite impress me as I had hoped it would. On the other hand, I found some of Wan’s direction rather impressive, especially the action sequences. The visual effects struck me as stunning, the movie featured excellent performances from a cast led by Jason Momoa and I thought screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall wrote a first-rate adventure. I am more than satisfied.

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“CAPTAIN MARVEL” (2019) Review

“CAPTAIN MARVEL” (2019) Review

For several years, many movie fans, critics and feminists have criticized Disney Studios and Marvel Films for failing to green light a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film that starred a person of color or simply a woman. And for years, producer Kevin Feige have assured these critics that the studio was planning such a film for the franchise. Ironically, it took the plans of a comic book film from another studio for Feige to fulfill his promise.

Sometime in 2014 or 2015, Warner Brothers Studios announced it plans for a solo film featuring one of D.C. Comics’ more famous characters, Wonder Woman. The character had first appeared in the 2016 movie, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” before moving on to a solo film. This decision by Warner Brothers and the success of the Wonder Woman film eventually led Feige to push forward his plans for a film about the Marvel Comics character, Black Panther aka King T’Challa of Wakanda. The character first appeared in the 2016 movie, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR”, followed by a solo movie released in early 2018. Following the success of “BLACK PANTHER”, Feige immediately set in motions for the MCU’s first film with a female lead – “CAPTAIN MARVEL”.

The comic book origin of Captain Marvel is decidedly complex and a bit controversial. The first Captain Marvel was a Kree military officer named Mar-Vell, who becomes an ally of Earth. The second Captain Marvel was Monica Rambeau, an African-American police officer from New Orleans. She eventually became another costume heroine named Spectrum. Four more characters served the role as Captain Marvel – all of them aliens – before an Air Force officer named Carol Danvers became the sixth and most recent character to fill the role. Feige and Disney Studios had selected Danvers to be the first cinematic Captain Marvel.

Directed and co-written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, “CAPTAIN MARVEL” begins in the Kree Empire’s capital planet of Hala in 1995, where a member of the Empire’s Starforce, Vers, suffer from amnesia and recurring nightmares involving an older woman. Both her mentor and commander, Yon-Rogg; and the empire’s ruler, an artificial intelligence named Supreme Intelligence her mentor and commander, trains her to control her abilities while the Supreme Intelligence, the artificial intelligence that rules the Kree, urges her to keep her emotions in check. During a Starforce mission to rescue an undercover operative from the Skrulls, a shape-shifting race that are engaged in a war against the Kree, Vers is captured. The Skrulls’ commander, Talos, probes Vers’s memories and discover that the individual they are looking for might be on Earth. Vers escapes and crash-lands in Los Angeles, where she meets S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson. Vers recovers a crystal containing her extracted memories, which leads her and Fury to an Air Force base. There, they learn that the mysterious woman that Vers had been dreaming of and for whom the Skrulls are searching is a Doctor Wendy Lawson, a woman who was working on a S.H.I.E.L.D. project known as Project Pegasus (one of the Infinity Stones – the Tesseract). They also discover that Vers is actually a Human Air Force officer named Carol Danvers, who was also working on Project Pegasus . . . and who was reported dead six years earlier in 1989. Vers (or Danvers) and Fury set out to keep the Space Stone out of the Skrulls’ hands and to learn more about her past and how she had ended up with the Kree.

Many critics and fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) were doubtful that “CAPTAIN MARVEL” would prove to be a hit. After all, the movie’s lead was a woman and the actress portraying her, Brie Larson, had a reputation for left-wing politics. Nevertheless, these doubting Thomases were proven wrong. “CAPTAIN MARVEL” went on to earn over one billion dollars at the box office. Did the movie deserve this kind of success? Hmmm . . . that is a good question.

“CAPTAIN MARVEL” did not strike me as one of the best MCU movies I have seen. I could say that it is your typical comic book hero origin story. Somewhat. “CAPTAIN MARVEL” had the unusual distinction of starting midway into Carol Danvers’ tale. In fact, screenwriters, which include directors Anna Fleck and Ryan Fleck; along with “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” co-writer Nicole Perlman; made the unusual choice of wrapping Carol’s past and the circumstances of her amnesia in a cloud of mystery. Movie audiences were first given the peep into Carol’s past during Talos’ probe of her memories. Between the Project Pegasus file and Carol’s reunion with her former best friend, former Air Force pilot Maria Rambeau, the mystery was finally cleared. A part of me admired the screenwriters’ attempt to utilize this different narrative device to convey Carol’s past. At least four other MCU films have utilized the flashback device (limited or otherwise) for their narratives. But “CAPTAIN MARVEL” is the only MCU movie in which the protagonist’s past is written as a mystery. Another twist that the screenwriters had revealed concerned the identities of the film’s antagonists – the Skrulls and their leader Talos. All I can say is that their goal turned out to be something of a surprise.

“CAPTAIN MARVEL” featured some well done action sequences. I thought Boden and Fleck provided solid direction for most of the film’s action scenes. I enjoyed such scenes like the Starforce’s rescue attempt of their spy from the Skrulls, Carol and Fury’s escape from the Air Force base and the Skrulls, and the film’s final action sequence involving Carol, Fury, Maria Rambeau, the Starforce team and the Skrulls. But if I had to choose my favorite action sequence, it would be the Los Angeles chase sequence in which Carol encounters Fury, Coulson and other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, while chasing the Skrulls. My head tells me that I should be more impressed by the final action sequence. But I simply found myself more impressed by that chase sequence in the movie’s first half.

What can I say about the performances in the movie? They were pretty solid. I seem to use that word a lot in describing my feelings about “CAPTAIN MARVEL”. Well . . . I thought Brie Larson’s performance as Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel was more than solid. She seemed to take control of the character rather easily. And I thought she did a great job in combining certain aspects of Carol’s personality – her ruthlessness, dry humor and flashes of insecurity. Although he had a brief appearance in the 2018 movie, “THE AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR”, Samuel L. Jackson returned in full force as former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury for the first time in nearly four years. Only in this film, he is a mere agent. Jackson’s performance in this film proved to be a lot more humorous than in his previous MCU appearances. I also noticed that he and Larson, who had first appeared together in the 2017 movie, “KONG: SKULL ISLAND”, managed to create a very strong screen chemistry. Another memorable performance came from Ben Mendelsohn, who portrayed the Skulls’ leader, Talos. Thanks to Mendelsohn’s skillful performance, Talos proved to be one of the most subtle and manipulative antagonists in the MCU franchise.

Other performances that caught my eye came from Lashana Lynch, who portrayed Carol’s oldest friends and former Air Force pilot, Maria Rambeau. Does that name sound familiar? It should. In the movie, Maria is the mother of Monica Rambeau, the first woman Captain Marvel . . . at least in the comics. Lynch gave a subtle and skillful performance that portrayed Maria as a pragmatic and reserve woman with a dry sense of humor. Jude Law was convincingly intense as Carol’s Starforce commander and mentor, Yon-Rogg, who was unfailingly devoted to the Kree Empire and who also happened to be searching for the missing Carol. “CAPTAIN MARVEL” also featured competent performances from the likes of Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, Gemma Chan as Starforce sniper Minn-Erva, Vik Sahay as Hero Torfan and Annette Bening, who portrayed Kree scientist Mar-Vell aka Dr. Wendy Lawson and provided the voice for the Kree Supreme Intelligence A.I. Akira and Azari Akbar portrayed the young and feisty Monica Rambeau at ages eleven and five respectively. Also, Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace (both who had been in 2014’s “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”) reprised their roles as Korath the Pursuer and Ronan the Accuser. Only in this film, Korath was a member of Starforce and Ronan had yet to become a homicidal political extremist.

Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed “CAPTAIN MARVEL”. And I do plan to purchase a DVD copy as soon as possible. But . . . it is not perfect. And it is not one of my favorite MCU films. One, I wish this movie had not been set in the past. I do not think that Andy Nicholson’s production designs, along with Lauri Gaffin’s set decorations and the art direction team had convincingly recaptured the late 1980s and the mid 1990s. Honestly, I have seen other movies and television shows that did a better job. I understand that Carol Danvers was an Air Force officer before she became Vers and later Captain Marvel. But I found the movie’s pro-military atmosphere a bit jarring and uncomfortable. I do not understand why Disney Studios thought it was necessary to allow the U.S. Air Force to have so much influence on the film. I understand that the filmmakers had hired Kenneth Mitchell to portray Carol’s father, Joseph Danvers. Why did they even bother? Mitchell was wasted in this film. He was for at least a second or two in a montage featuring Carol’s memories. And he had one or two lines. What a waste of a good actor! And if I must be brutally honest, I found the movie’s pacing rather uneven . . . especially in the firs thirty minutes and in the last half hour. And as much as I enjoyed some of the action sequences, my enjoyment was limited by the film’s confusing editing, which has become typical of the MCU. Despite being a woman – and a progressive one at that – I found that entire moment with Captain Marvel kicking ass to the tune of Gwen Stefani’s 1995 song, “Just a Girl” rather cringe worthy. The MCU has proven lately that when it comes to promoting feminine empowerment, the franchise can be rather shallow and subtle as a sledge hammer.

My biggest problems with “CAPTAIN MARVEL” proved to be its inconsistent writing – a trait that has become a hallmark of the MCU in the past several years. On “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” Phil Coulson had informed his team that Nick Fury had recruited him into the agency, while he was in college. That should have occurred at least 10 years before this film’s setting. Yet, Clark Gregg had portrayed Coulson as if the latter was a newbie agent. And to be brutally honest, Gregg’s presence in the movie proved to be rather limited. Unfortunately. Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D., why did Fury, Coulson and other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents appear at that Radio Shack store after a security guard had reported her presence? Why? Before Fury’s discovery of the Skrulls’ presence, S.H.I.E.L.D. was more focused on unusual scientific projects. There is also the matter of the Tesseract aka the Space Stone. Apparently, the Infinity stone, which was discovered and lost by HYDRA leader Johann Schmidt in 1942 and 1945 respectively, was discovered by S.S.R. scientist and future S.H.I.E.L.D. founder Howard Stark in 1945. S.H.I.E.L.D. kept that stone for over 40 years until it became part of a joint S.H.I.E.L.D./Air Force operation in the late 1980s called Project Pegasus. Seriously? Why would such a secretive agency like S.H.I.E.L.D. even share knowledge of the Tesseract with the U.S. Air Force, let alone allow a non-S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist (Dr. Lawson) and two junior test pilots (Carol and Maria) be the main participants in this project?

Movie audiences also discover how Nick Fury had lost his eye. I want to state how his eye was lost, but I am too disgusted to do so. Okay . . . Dr. Lawson aka Mar-Vell’s space cat (or whatever the hell it is) named Goose had scratched out his left eye. That is correct. Fury’s speech about trust issues in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” originated with a space cat that scratched out his eye, because he got too friendly with it. Jesus Christ! Talk about taking an important character moment for Fury in one film and transforming it into a joke in another, five years later. In doing so, both Boden and Fleck came dangerously close to neutering his character. They, along with Kevin Feige, actually managed to accomplish this with the Monica Rambeau character. They took Marvel Comics’ first female Captain Marvel and transformed her into a child, who happened to be the daughter of Carol Danvers’ best friend. I found this both frustrating and disturbing.

Earlier, I had complained about the movie’s 1989-1995 setting. I have a few questions in regard to portraying Captain Marvel’s origin during this setting. If Captain Marvel had been around since 1995, why did Nick Fury wait so long to summon her? He did not summon her until the chaos surrounding Thanos’ Snap in “THE AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR” began to manifest . . . twenty-three years later, as shown in one of the film’s post-credit scenes. If Captain Marvel had been saving the universe during those past twenty-three years, where was she when Ronan the Accuser had threatened to destroy Xandar in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”? Where was she when Ego had threatened the universe in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2”? Where was she when the Dark Elves had attacked both Asgard and Earth in order to get their hands on the Aether (or Reality Stone) in “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”? Where was she when Loki and the Chitauri attempted to invade Earth in “THE AVENGERS”? Where was she when Ultron threatened the Earth in “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”? Where was she during all of these major galactic crisis? The more I think about this, the more I realize that Carol’s origin story should have been set after the recent MCU film, “THE AVENGERS: ENDGAME”.

Despite my complaints about “CAPTAIN MARVEL”, I did enjoy it. The movie had enough virtues for me to do so, especially an entertaining adventure set in both outer space and on Earth. I also thought the screenwriters, which included directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had created an engaging and interesting mystery that surrounded the protagonist’s past and origin of her abilities. “CAPTAIN MARVEL” also featured some impressive action sequences and first-rate performances from a cast led by Brie Larson. I do look forward to seeing this movie again.

 

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“CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007) Review

 

“CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007) Review

Eleven years ago, I first learned about how a Texas congressman named Charlie Wilson led the effort to drive the Soviet Army from Afghanistan after nearly ten years. I learned about Operation Cyclone from the 2007 biopic, “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR”

Operation Cyclone was the code name for the C.I.A. program to arm and finance the mujahideen in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, prior to and during the military intervention by the USSR in support of its client, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The program leaned heavily towards supporting militant Islamic groups that were favored by the regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in neighboring Pakistan, instead of the less militant Afghan resistance groups that had also been fighting the pro-Marxist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan regime since before the Soviet invasion. Operation Cyclone proved to be one of the longest and most expensive covert CIA operations undertaken during the agency’s history.

Directed by Mike Nichols and based upon George Crile III’s 2003 book, “Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History”“CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” began in 1980, when Congressman Charles “Charlie” Wilson (D-Texas) became aware of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan during to trip to Las Vegas. But it took an old friend of his, Texas socialite Joanne Herring, to encourage him to finally get involved with driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. First, Wilson pays a visit to Afghanistan, where he visits a refugee camp and the country’s leader, President Zia-ul-Haq. Upon his return to the U.S., Wilson recruits the help of veteran C.I.A. agent Gust Avrakotos to help him kick start an operation that would provide aid – food, medical and especially military – to the Afghans. And finding military aid would mean enlisting support from both Israel and Egypt. At the same time, Wilson is forced to face a Federal investigation into allegations of his cocaine use, as part of a larger investigation into Congressional misconduct.

I must admit that I did not have a very high opinion of “TIMELESS” when I first saw it over ten years ago. I honestly did not know what to expect. I certainly did not expect a comedy-drama with a lot of wit and snappy one-liners. Or perhaps I was expecting something a little more . . . intense? Who knows. But looking back on the film, I finally realized that my opinion of it has increased over the years.

I enjoyed how the movie went to a great deal of effort to provide details of Wilson’s efforts to aid the Afghans, especially the Mujahidee (Afghanistan’s freedom fighters). Whether those details were historically accurate or not – I have not the foggiest idea. But I found Wilson’s efforts to find ways to provide aid and help the Afghans throw out the occupying Soviets without the rest of the world finding out about U.S. involvement very interesting . . . and rather amusing. This sequence of events included a rather humorous first meeting between Wilson and his C.I.A. liaison, Gust Avrakotos. Another aspect of the film that I found humorous were Wilson’s efforts to curb his friend Ms. Herring’s patriotic and religious fervor over the program – including one scene in which she bluntly assured her guests at a fund raiser that President Zia-ul-Haq was not responsible for the death of his predecessor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. For me, one of the film’s most interesting and hilarious scenes featured Wilson’s meeting with both Israeli and Egyptian representatives in order to acquire arms for the Mujahidee – a meeting that included an Arabic dance (belly dance) from the daughter of an American businessman.

Judging from the movie’s Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, one could see that “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” was not exactly a front-runner for Academy Award nominations during the 2007-2008 movie awards season Philip Seymour-Hoffman earned the majority of the film’s major nominations. Julia Roberts did earn a Golden Globe Awards, but nothing else. Did it deserve more acclamation? I do not know. Mike Nichols did a competent and entertaining job in allowing moviegoers peeks into C.I.A. policies, Washington and international politics. Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos) all gave excellent performances. Well . . . Hanks and Hoffman struck me as entertaining and excellent. But I really enjoyed Roberts’ performance as the colorful Houston socialite. It seemed a shame that she was only nominated for a Golden Globe Award. The movie also featured solid performances from Amy Adams, Ned Beatty, Om Puri, Christopher Denham, John Slattery, Ken Stott, Shaun Tolb, Peter Gerety and Emily Blunt.

But if I must be honest, the movie did not give me a charge. I enjoyed it very mcuh. I mean, I really found it entertaining. But I did not love “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR”. I remember while leaving the theater following my first viewing of the film, I had this feeling that something was missing. I do not know. It could have been the unsatisfying ending, which I found to be rushed. It could have been James Newton Howard’s score that seemed too treacly for a borderline black comedy about a U.S. congressman, the C.I.A. and the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. Or perhaps I found the movie’s ending even more treacly than its score. Either Nichols or the movie’s producers – Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman – lacked the balls to portray the consequences of Operation Cyclone.

I cannot say that “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” was a great film. I do not know if I would regard it as one of Mike Nichols’ best efforts. But I found it very entertaining, thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, Nichols’ direction and a first-rate cast led by Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And if one is intrigued by a peek into American politics during the 1980s, I would highly recommend it.

Top Favorite Episodes of “TIMELESS” Season One (2016-2017)

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Below is a list of my favorite episodes from Season One of the NBC series, “TIMELESS”. Created by Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan, the series stars Abigail Spencer, Matt Lanter, Malcolm Barrett and Goran Višnjić: 

TOP FAVORITE EPISODES OF “TIMELESS” SEASON ONE (2016-2017)

1 - 1.07 Stranded

1. (1.07) “Stranded” – The time traveling team of Lucy Preston, Wyatt Logan and Rufus Carlin follow fugitive Garcia Flynn (who is determined to destroy the organization known as Rittenhouse) to 1754, during the French and Indian War, and find themselves stranded when his team sabotages their time machine, the Lifeboat. Katrina Lombard and Salvator Xuereb guest-starred.

2 - 1.13 Karma Chameleon

2. (1.13) “Karma Chameleon” – Wyatt and Rufus take an unauthorized trip back to Toledo, Ohio in 1983 in an effort to prevent the one-night stand between the parents of the man who ends up murdering Wyatt’s wife, Jessica.

3 - 1.12 The Murder of Jesse James

3. (1.13) “The Murder of Jesse James” – The team travels back to April 1882, after Flynn saves outlaw Jesse James from being murdered by the Ford brothers. Flynn uses the outlaw to help track down a former time traveling colleague. They recruit U.S. Marshals Bass Reeves and Grant Johnson to help them track down the pair. Coleman Domingo, Daniel Lissing, Zahn McClarnon and Annie Wersching guest-starred.

4 - 1.04 Party at Castle Varlar

4. (1.04) “Party at Castle Varlar” – The team continues its search for Garcia Flynn in 1944 Nazi Germany,where they receive help from Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Sean Maguire guest-starred.

5 - 1.02 The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

5. (1.02) “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” – The team struggles over whether to prevent the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865; when they learn that Flynn has formed ties with John Wilkes Booth.

HM - 1.15 Public Enemy No. 1

Honorable Mention: (1.15) “Public Enemy No. 1” – Lucy and Rufus and a suspended Wyatt divert from a mission in order to track down Flynn to 1931 Chicago. They recruit Elliot Ness’ help, when they discover that Flynn has joined forces with Al Capone to find Rittenhouse member, Chicago Mayor William Thompson. Misha Collins guest-starred.

Top Ten Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1950s

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Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1950s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1950s

1 - A Nero Wolfe Mystery

1. “A Nero Wolfe Mystery” (2000-2002) – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred in this adaptation of novels and short stories about the New York City based private detective from Montenegro, Nero Wolfe.

 

2 - The Company

2. “The Company” (2007) – Robert Littell produced this three-part miniseries adaptation of his 2002 novel about the Cold War during the mid and late 20th century. Half of the series is set during the 1950s. Chris O’Donnell, Rory Cochrane, Alessandro Nivola, Alfred Molina and Michael Keaton starred.

 

3 - Agatha Christie Miss Marple

3. “Miss Marple” (1984-1992) – Joan Hickson starred in this adaptation of Agatha Christie murder mysteries featuring the elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. The series was produced by George Gallaccio.

 

4 - MASH

4. “M*A*S*H” (1972-1983) – Larry Gelbert developed this Award winning adaptation of the 1970 movie and Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel, “M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors” about a U.S. Army field hospital during the Korean War. Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers and Mike Farrell starred.

 

5 - Agatha Christie Marple

5. “Agatha Christie’s Marple” (2004-2013) – Both Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie portrayed Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novels about the elderly sleuth.

 

6 - The Hour

6. “The Hour” (2011-2012) – Romola Garai, Dominic West and Ben Whishaw starred in this series about a BBC news show set in the mid-to-late 1950s. The series was created by Abi Morgan.

 

7 - Magic City

7. “Magic City” (2012-2013) – Mitch Glazer created this STARZ series about a Miami hotel owner during the late 1950s. The series starred Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Olga Kurylenko.

 

9 - Ill Fly Away

8. “I’ll Fly Away” (1991-1993) – Regina Taylor and Sam Waterston starred in this series about a Southern black housekeeper and her complicated relationship with her employer, a white attorney in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The series was created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey.

 

10 - Grantchester

9. “Grantchester” (2014-Present) – James Norton and Robson Greene starred in this adaptation of “The Grantchester Mysteries”, James Runcie’s series of mystery stories that feature an unlikely partnership between a Church of England vicar and a police detective during the 1950s.

 

8 - Ordeal By Innocence

10. “Ordeal of Innocence” (2018) – Sarah Phelps wrote and produced this third adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1958 novel. The three-part miniseries starred Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor and Anthony Boyle.

 

 

Five Favorite Episodes of “LEGENDS OF TOMORROW” Season One (2016)

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from Season One of the CW series, “LEGENDS OF TOMORROW”. Based upon several D.C. Comics titles, the series was created by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, Andrew Kreisberg, and Phil Klemmer.

 

 

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “LEGENDS OF TOMORROW” SEASON ONE (2016)

1. (1.13) “Leviathan” – Rogue time traveling cop Rip Hunter takes his team of vigilante heroes to 2166 London in an effort to defeat the immortal warrior Vandal Savage once and for all and prevent him from becoming the tyrannical world leader of the 22nd century. However . . . complications arise in the form of Savage’s daughter and a giant android.

 

2. (1.05) “Fail-Safe” – This second half of a two-part story in 1986 Soviet Union finds Rip and his team attempt the prison break of team members Ray Palmer aka “The Atom” and Mick Rory aka “Heatwave” from a Soviet gulag. Meanwhile, they also have to prevent Soviet scientist Valentina Vostok from using the stolen “Firestorm” formula given to her by Savage.

 

3. (1.15) “Destiny” – Following the capture of Rip and some of the Legends by his former employers, the Time Bureau, the remaining Legends under Sara Lance aka White Canary plot to rescue their fellow team members and destroy the Time Bureau’s Occulus device, which the latter used to help Savage in order to maintain the timeline. Martin Donovan guest-starred.

 

4. (1.02) “Pilot, Part 2” – Rip and his team infiltrate a weapons auction for terrorists in 1975 in order to prevent Savage from selling a nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, a fight ensues in which Ray loses a part of his Atom suit. Savage’s discovery of it leads to a potential destruction of Star City (the Green Arrow’s hometown) in the future. Neal McDonough guest-starred.

 

5. (1.08) “Night of the Hawk” – Rip and his team track Savage to a small town in Oregon in 1958, where they suspect he is involved in a recent string of murders.

“I, TONYA” (2017) Review

 

“I, TONYA” (2017) Review

Like others who had grown up in the mid-to-late 20th century, I remember the sports scandal that surrounded Olympic figure skaters, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. The media wallowed in the scandal on television screens, newspapers and magazines. It all culminated when both women participated in the 1994 Winter Olympics Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

Several months after the ’94 Olympic Games, NBC aired the 1994 television movie, “TONYA AND NANCY: THE INSIDE STORY”. Actually, the television movie appeared two months after the Lillehammer games. Did I see it? No. In fact, I did not even bother to watch the two skaters’ compete in the Olympic Games. I barely gave Harding or Kerrigan a thought through those years in which the scandal was mentioned or spoofed in a series of television episodes, movies, songs and documentaries. However, during the fall of 2017, I found myself watching the trailer for biopic about Harding called “I, TONYA”. The trailer seemed so intriguing and somewhat off-the-wall that for the first time in twenty-three years, I found myself intrigued by the subject and decided to watch it.

Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers (one of the film’s co-producers), “I, TONYA” is basically a biography about Tonya Harding and her connection to the January 6, 1994 attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan. To be honest, Kerrigan played a supporting role – and not a very big one – in this biopic. This movie was all about Tonya. Starring Margot Robbie in the title role, “I, TONYA” followed Harding’s life from the age of four to the immediate aftermath of the Lillehammer Games. The movie was written a mockumentary style that featured fictional interviews of Harding and others who had a major role in her life:

*Ex-husband Jeff Gillooly
*LaVona Golden, Tonya’s husband
*Diane Rawlinson, Tonya’s first and last skating coach
*Shawn Eckhardt, Gillooly’s close friend and Tonya’s so-called bodyguard
*Martin Maddox, a fictional character who is basically a composite of many television producers that exploited the 1994 scandal

Ironically, Nancy Kerrigan is the only major character in this movie who was not interviewed. Perhaps Gillespie and Robbie, who served as one of the film’s other three producers, felt that the real Kerrigan would be offended at the thought of her cinematic counterpart being featured as a supporting character in a film about Harding. Judging from Kerrigan’s reaction to the movie, they were right. Another aspect of this film that I found surprising is that it was basically a biopic about Harding. The latter did not share top billing with her rival in this film, unlike the 1994 television film. It turns out that screenwriter/co-producer Steven Rogers found Harding’s personal life more complex and compelling. He also noticed that both Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, had very conflicting accounts of what really happened with Kerrigan and realized this would make an interesting narrative for a film.

Was “I, TONYA” an interesting film? Well . . . yes. Yes, it was. But it had its flaws. Actually, I could only find one major flaw in the film’s narrative. For a film that allegedly was supposed to be about Harding from the viewpoints of several people, it seemed to me that aside from trainer Diane Rawlinson, only Harding’s point-of-view really seemed to matter. Or the one audiences were expected to take seriously. Most of Jeff Gillooly’s account of his relationship with Harding were portrayed with a grain of salt. At the same time, audiences were expected to accept his account of his relationship with Shawn Eckhardt as the real deal. This . . . contradiction seemed a bit hard to swallow at times. Look . . . I realize that Tonya Harding is at the center of this tale. But if one is going to utilize the narration of more than one character, all viewpoints should be equally judged on whether to take them seriously or not.

But you know what? I still found “I, TONYA” rather interesting. I also found it entertaining. One, screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie took what could have been a basic Hollywood biopic and created what turned out to be one of the most original and somewhat bizarre film biographies I have ever seen, hands down. As I had earlier pointed out, Rogers and Gillespie utilized the “mockdocumentary” style to include scenes that feature interviews of the main characters. I thought this movie device was utilized with great wit, along with a dash of dark humor and great satisfaction for me. This was especially the case when both the screenwriter and director used it to break the “fourth wall” – a narrative device used when a character breaks away from the story to address the audience.

Many people have wondered why Rogers had focused his screenplay on Tonya Harding. Why not write a movie about both Harding and Nancy Kerrigan? Well . . . as I had earlier pointed out, such a story had already been told in that 1994 NBC television movie I had earlier mentioned. Rogers could have done a movie about Kerrigan and her family’s struggles to support her skating career. It probably would have been a very uplifiting film. But if one looks into Harding’s personal history . . . well, I might as well be frank . . . it is the stuff from which movie biopics are made. Between Harding’s contentious and abusive relationships with both her mother La Vona Golden and first husband Jeff Gillooly, her earthy and frank personality and her more aggressive and modern style of skating that led her to clash with the judges . . . I mean, honestly, can you really blame both Steven Rogers and Craig Gillespie for choosing to do a movie about her? I certainly cannot. Between the off-the-wall directorial style that Gillespie had utilized and Rogers’ sharp screenplay, is it any wonder that I found this movie so fascinating to watch?

What I found even more fascinating is that the movie put the screws to everyone – Harding’s mother, ex-husband, his friend Shawn Eckhardt, the men recruited to attack Kerrigan, the ice skating organizations (both national and international) and yes . . . even Harding herself. Whenever the script had the former ice skating making excuses for some of her questionable actions, it also revealed her excuses or comments as lies. But the most interesting moment occurred when Harding (as narrator) turned to the camera and made this comment about the media and the public’s reaction to her legal travails:

” It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.”

Now . . . one could dismiss this as petulant complaining from the leading character’s part. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. But I could not help thinking there was a great deal of truth in those words. As much as the media and the public loves worshiping a celebrity, once the latter slips or make a mistake, both will bash or drag that celebrity through the mud for as long as they can. It almost seemed as if they revel in that celebrity’s misfortune. Like I said, Harding and those close to her were not the only ones skewered in this film.

In order to make a movie work, one needs a first-rate story, director and cast. “I, TONYA” was very lucky to have Steven Rogers and Craig Gillespie as its screenwriter and director. It was also blessed with a first-rate cast. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Julianne Nicholson, Mckenna Grace, the very entertaining Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic and Caitlin Carver. However, the performances that really impressed me came from four people – Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Paul Walter Hauser and Allison Janney.

Paul Walter Hauser gave a very funny performance as the clueless Shawn Eckhardt, whose enthusiasm toward his role as Harding’s “bodyguard” may have led him to go too far. Sebastian Stan gave a very complex performance as Harding’s first husband, Jeff Gillooly. Stan portrayed his character with a combination of quiet charm and violent intensity. Frankly, he should have been nominated for his performance. The wonderful Allison Janney won both a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award for her portrayal of Harding’s sharp-tongued and abrasive mother, La Vona Golden. I could never decide whether the character was funny or horrifying. But thanks to Janney’s performance, she was very interesting. Margot Robbie (who also served as one of the film’s producers) is the last actress I could see portraying Tonya Harding. If I must be blunt, she is taller and better looking than the Olympic skater. And yet . . . she gave one of the best performances of her career (so far) as the ambitious and aggressive Harding. I really admire how Robbie managed to convey so many aspects of the skater’s personality without being overwhelmed. She really earned her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

Aside from the story, the direction and performances, there were other aspects of “I, TONYA” that I admired. My mind was not particularly blown away by Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography. But I thought his work served both the film’s story and setting rather well. I could also say the same about Jennifer Johnson’s costume designs, which more than an adequate job of serving both the film’s late 20th century setting and Harding’s historic skating costumes. I do not recall Peter Nashel’s score. But I must admit that I admire how he utilize well known tunes from the late 20th century throughout the film. The one technical aspect of “I, TONYA” that I truly admired was Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing. I thought she did a superb job in the way she shaped Harding’s tale from Gillespie’s narrators, fourth walls and sequences on the ice rink. For her work, Riegel earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Editing and won the American Cinema Editors Award for Best Edited Feature Film – Comedy or Musical.

I never thought I would find myself watching a movie about Olympic ice skater, Tonya Harding. Hell, I never thought I would end up enjoying it. Yet, I did enjoy “I, TONYA” very much. I thought it was one of the most bizarre and fascinating biopics I have ever seen. In fact, thanks to director Craig Gillespie, screenwriter Steven Rogers and a superb cast led by Margot Robbie, “I, TONYA” proved to be one of my favorite movies of 2017.

 

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“There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.”