S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

Archive for the category “Film Reviews”

MOVIE REVIEW: Bridge of Spies

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Bridge of Spies is a superb film that accurately portrays a key incident in our cold war with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I would expect no less from this all-American first team.

Tom Hanks delivers a highly empathetic portrayal of James Donovan and leads us carefully through the narrative. Of singular import is Mark Reynolds’ part in the story—he steals the show with his low key and compelling performance. After a time, we begin to empathize with Colonel Able and consider him just another nice guy unjustly embroiled in our justice system. I must add that the resemblance between Reynolds and Able is remarkable. Kudos to the makeup artists.

To understand this outstanding film in depth, let’s take a quick review of the history of the event on which this film is based. With some exceptions, the film’s plot mimics the following narrative closely.

Background. During the height of the cold war, Colonel Rudolph Able was a long-term Soviet KGB agent operating in New York City. On 21 June 1957 the FBI arrested him and attorney James B. Donovan was appointed to represent him. On 15 November 1957, a federal court convicted Able and sentenced him to life in prison.

In March 1955, the United Air Force authorized Lockheed Martin to begin production of the reconnaissance aircraft titled U2. (“U” for utility instead of “R” for reconnaissance.) Work began at Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works in Palmdale, California, and flight testing was done in Area 51 in the Nevada desert. The U2 was a technological aircraft equipped with advanced photography equipment capable of exceptionally high resolution images taken from 70,000 feet altitude.

On 21 July 1955, President Eisenhower proposed an Open Skies program to the USSR’s Communist Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev’s response was, “Neyt!” It’s probable that the KGB knew about our U2 reconnaissance program and the USSR had no capability to respond.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s first U2 flight over the USSR was on 4 July 1956. This aircraft was immune from Soviet air defense surface-to-air missiles (SA2 Guideline) because it flew at 70,000 plus altitude—far higher than the range of the Guideline.

On 1 May 1960 Francis Gary Powers was piloting a U2 over Sverdlovsk (formerly called Ekaterinburg, the place of the regicide of Czar Nicholas II and the royal family.) A SAM exploded near the U2 causing some damage and forcing it to a lower altitude. A second SAM scored a proximity hit and the aircraft fell. Powers punched out and parachuted into a into a ten-year prison term for espionage.

I have some nits to pick regarding the technical details of the U2 in the digital animation sequence, but that’s in another critique—nonetheless, very well done, indeed.

At the Central Intelligence Agency’s insistence, James B. Donovan agreed to represent the United States of America to negotiations with the USSR for the exchange of Francis Powers for KGB intelligence officer, Rudolf Abel. KGB agents and Donovan held discussions in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) behind the Berlin Wall. Donovan also demanded the exchange of the American doctoral student Fredrick Pryor who was caught behind the Wall just as it was sealed.

After intense negotiations, bluffs, threats, etc., the parties concluded the deal, and on 10 February 1962 the exchange of prisoners was made on the Glienick Bridge, “The Bridge of Spies,” that separated the DDR from the German Federal Republic. Pryor was sent to freedom at Checkpoint Charlie.

I would urge all to see this epic and historically accurate (almost) film.

Leads:

  • Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan, Esq.
  • Mark Reynolds as Colonel Rudolph Abel, Soviet spy
  • Alan Alda as Thomas Walters Esq., lead attorney in Donovan’s firm
  • Amy Ryan as Mary McKenna Donovan, James’ wife

Movie Review, The Intern,

Production Company.  Waverly Films

Writer/Director.  Nancy Meyers

Actors

  • Anne Hathaway does a yeoman performance as Jules Ostin as the “not-all-together,” overworked, and on the edge CEO of her startup Internet sales company.
  • Robert DeNiro is outstanding as Ben Whittaker—Seventy-year old, widower, and retired executive from a defunct company. Now he’s a Muse and sage to Jules.
  • What’s compelling about this drama is the slowly budding, aseptic chemistry between Ben and Jules.

The Intern is a delightful woman’s film—written and directed by a talented woman.  It’s the classic story of the young meets the old, the old ever so cleverly engenders insight into the young, and all the young’s problems are solved.  That’s the nut of the story—clearly I could detail more, but no need. See the film or read a synopsis on the web.

I have four major negatives with this film.

  1. The ambiance of this film, at times, is frippery.
  2. At 121 minutes this film is far too long for the attendant narrative.
  3. Far too many screen minutes are devoted to two talking heads (Ben and Jules) exchanging detrop comments.
      • One such scene plays in Jules’ spacious office.
      • Another plays in Jules’ hotel room in San Francisco.
  1. The scene where Ben and his hi-tech gang raid Jules’ mother’s home to retrieve an aberrant email from Jules is so much blatherskite. Editing out this irrelevant scene would save precious screen minutes and keep the audience’s empathy on track with the unfolding primary story.  Also, with the scene missing, the audience would not conclude that Jules can be a dingbat and always is in control.

The ending has a twist that I did not expect. View the film.  Enjoy.  It’s another hit for Nancy Meyers.

Film Review: The Woman in Gold

the woman in goldDetails. Released April 2015. Orion Pictures. Actors: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Donald Bruke, Kate Holmes, Mana Altman. Director, Simon Curtis. Writers: Alexi Kaye Campbell.

Background. During the Anschluss of 1938, Nazi Germany overthrew the government of Austria. Following, the Austrian and German Nazis looted Jewish possessions: art, jewelry, furs, and silver, anything of value.

Synopsis. This film is liberally based on actuality. Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), an elderly Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria, attempts to recover four valuable paintings by the now world-famous artist Gustav Klimt that Nazi thugs looted from her family. In particular she wants the painting titled “The Woman in Gold,” a portrait of, Adele Bloch-Baurer I, her aunt. After the War, the paintings were on display in the Austrian State Gallery. Over the ensuing years, “The Woman in Gold” became Austria’s equivalent of France’s “Mona Lisa.”

In 1999 Altmann, the now American citizen, employs the attorney E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to plead her case against the implacable Austrian Government. Her motivation is to publicize the Nazi’s unmitigated genocide and illicit art theft and to seek some matter of justice and restitution. Eventually, Schoenberg, through extended, legal machinations, wins his case through an arbitration panel that declares that the paintings the property of Altmann. She returns the four paintings to the United States and they are now on display at the Neue Galerie in New York City.

Critique. On the whole, I enjoyed this film. On a scale of one to five, I place it at four. It engendered intense empathy in me as it stimulated my recalled these events from World War II. Helen Mirren is exceptional as Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann. Ryan Reynolds does a yeoman job as E. Randol Schoenberg—thought he’s bit stoic at times. The miss en scène is skillfully portrayed with excellent cinematography, background locations, costumes, props, etc. Directing, and editing are first-rate. And, as noted art direction is superb.

Several plot points piqued my interest.

  1. During the Austrian Nazi government regime, Maria Altmann and her husband board an aeroplane in Vienna bound for Cologne—in the heart of Nazi Germany. Next, she is in the United States without her husband. There is a large hole in this scenario. What happened to her husband? And how did they (she) escape from Nazi Germany?
  2. The transitions from present day to 1938 are exceptionally well executed. However, after a time they became timeworn.
  3. I must admit that I was somewhat annoyed that the Schӧnebrunn Palace was shown several times as some other building and not always the same building. I reckon that’s artistic prerogative.

Book Review: Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris

five_came_backMark Harris weaves an intriguing story of five top-notch motion-picture directors that abandoned their careers in Hollywood and joined the military to help win World War II by producing documentary, propaganda, and information films.  He has integrated numerous moving parts into a coherent tale with keen interest. It’s a heavy book that deserves a careful read. Loaded with key information, and a comprehensive index, Five Came Back is essential for the cineaste, WWII aficionados, and those of my generation who recall the great films of these five directors and the details of the war.  After the read, this book goes into one’s library as a great reference book re Hollywood and the War effort.  The directors are:

Director Spreadsheet

I have two concerns.  First Harris changes gears all too often without a transition.  For instance, in one paragraph he writes about one director and in the following chapter he talks about another director and there is no apparent relationship between these two chapters.  Nonetheless, a linear structure where he would discuss one director a time would be a disaster.  Often times there were relationships between two of the directors.  Secondly, I’ve spotted eight technical errors.  The list is at the end of this review—some significant, others nit picks.

The Office of War Information and General George C. Washington tasked Major Frank Capra to produce a series of film to inform our soldiers and civilians about the righteous of our involvement in the war.  He fought army bureaucracy for most of the war to produce and distribute the Why We Fight series of seven films.  The first picture in this series of documentary films, Prelude to War earned the Academy Award in 1942.  By the war’s end, all seven films were released.

 

whywefight

The army tasked (then) Lieutenant Colonel Frank Capra, to coordinate all army combat photographic efforts.  Accordingly, he commuted between Washington, DC and London through the War.

In discussing the power of propaganda films and the value of realism Capra said, “No war documentary can be made with absolute integrity and truth.”  Capra supporting John Houston’s staging and restaging the battle scenes in the The Battle of San Pietro. Capra’s comments reflected his understanding of the documentary film movement.  John Grierson, father of the documentary film, averred that the documentary film is a restaging of reality.  Eric Ambler (English novelist) commented on the staged battle scenes of San Pietro, “That nothing but falsification would be of any use, or even possible.” He reinforced his countryman’s philosophy re the documentary film.

In May 1945 the war in Europe was over: Capra was discharged, and General George C. Marshall pinned the Distinguished Service Medal on his blouse.

John Huston had conceived, staged, and restaged almost the entire film The Battle of San Pietro.  Houston, perhaps overprotective of his cameramen, was reluctant to have them in danger on the front lines.  Accordingly, he convinced the Army to supply the men and equipment he needed to produce this film.  It was a reasonably faithful reproduction of the actual battle.  Harris says that, “Houston would do most anything that would fit the army’s propaganda needs.”  Several years later, Houston would haggle with the Army to release his film Let There be Light.  This film dealt with the psychological problems of the returning serviceman.  The Army thought it to be too negative and reflect poorly on the soldier,

 

san pietro

Lieutenant Commander John Ford, a naval reservist, was called to active duty shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Tipped about the coming battle at Midway, he and his combat cameramen (mostly from Hollywood) deployed to the island.  During the battle, Ford documented some of the fiercest action with his handheld, 16mm camera.  His footage of the battle was captured totally impromptu.  Ford was filming the battle while standing near the Midway power house. He was wounded slightly in the arm when a Japanese bomb exploded near power house.  He assembled the raw footage and with keen filmic design techniques  produced the Academy award-wining film (1942), Battle of Midway.

Battle_of_Midway_(1942_documentary)_intro2

Ford was present at Omaha Beach on D-Day (6 June 1944) directing Coast Guard cameramen. No motion picture was made of the footage.  In a 1964 interview, Ford explained that the U.S. Government was “afraid to show so many American casualties on the screen.” At war’s end the navy awarded John Ford the Legion of Merit.  He remained in the Naval Reserve and the Navy promoted him to Rear Admiral in 1952 when he retired.

Ford’s relationship with the Office of Strategic Services (Forerunner of the CIA) and the Navy is unclear.  He seemed to be serving two masters.  What was the purpose of this dual chain-of-command?  Early on he said, “I am in command of the field photographic branch of the Office of Strategic Services.”  And, why was the OSS producing documentary film?

John Ford had contempt for actor John Wayne because Wayne had broken one vague comment after another to join the Armed Forces.  Wayne never joined.  I reckon they reconciled after the war:  they collaborated on a number of films, such as The Searchers.

Harris weaves an intriguing tale of William Wyler’s producing and directing the groundbreaking film The Memphis Belle—probably the “best” documentary film for the war.  Actually, it is a composite of several Eight Air Force, Boeing B-17 missions over Germany.  It’s suffused with real-time combat photography that is thrilling, chilling, and engrossing—much shot by Wyler.  It’s the story of the crews twenty-fifth mission—this time over the submarine pens at Wilhelmshaven.  On return, the Queen of England greets the crew, medals awarded, and their commanding officer reads their orders to return to homeland to train bomber crews for future raids on Germany.  What the film fails to discuss is the appalling loss rate of our B-17 and B-24 bombers: German interceptor aircraft, anti-aircraft “flack,” and foul weather took a terrible toll.  On average, the loss rate per raid was about fifteen percent.  Over Schweinfurt, the loss rate was fifty-percent.

memphis-belle

George Stevens joined the Army Signal Corps. His personal use of film cameras to document the historic event in Europe is one of the most interesting tales in this book.  For example, the scenes that Harris that tells about Stevens shooting film and directing his combat cameramen at Omaha Beach on “D Day,” the push through the hedge rows of Normandy, the Liberation of Paris, Stevens’ using a film camera to documented the army’s advance through France and Germany; and the liberation of the notorious concentration camp Dachau.  The horror of the scene at Dachau, affected Stevens deeply for the rest of his life.   On his discharge from the Army he was awarded he Legion of Merit.

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The five directors resumed their careers after the war: some more successful than others.  Their experiences in the war inscribed deep emotional scars that were harder for some to overcome than others were.  Nonetheless, all resumed successful careers in the fast-changing Hollywood environment.

Here are the errors I’ve spotted.

  • Calls the USSR “Russia” in Frank Capra’s trip in 1935.
  • Incorrectly refers to the 1935-1936 Second Italian-Ethiopian War as starting in 1933.
  • States that Newfoundland in 1943 was part of Canada.  No so.  At that time, Newfoundland was a Dominion of the British Empire—not a part of Canada.
  • He says, “The Navy was still putting the crew (of the Boeing B-17 bomber dubbed “Memphis Bell”) through its paces…”  The crew of the “Memphis Bell” were in the Army Air Corps—not the Navy.
  • Notes that “The Americans, who were then pouring all of their manpower into the war in the Pacific.”  Not so.  President Roosevelt and Five-star General George Marshall, General of the Army, had decided that their first priority was to defeat Nazi Germany in EuropeThe Pacific war was clearly secondary.
  • Discussing the film The Negro Soldier–the telling of the black soldiers’ participation in the war—he notes that the army soldiers were dancing with the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Emergency Service).  I suspect that he meant to write “WAC” (Woman’s Army Corps).
  • In the scene in which Harris discusses the capture of the Ludendorff, single-track railroad bridge across the Rhine River, he states, “…the allies captured three bridges (across the Rhine).  Actually, Hitler ordered all bridges across the Rhine destroyed and all were except the bridge at Remagen.  It was the lone bridge still standing across the Rhine. Elements of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion captured this bridge intact on the 8th of March 1945, and soon General George Patton’s tanks were on the east side of the river and Berlin was his target.
  • Discussing William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, Harris pens that the character Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews) walks among “…an airfield of now useless fighter planes.”  Actually, Fred is in the aircraft bone-yard for the Boeing B-17 bombers.

FIN

Captain America Movie Review

Marvel Productions. Kevin Feige, Producer;  Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, Directors.

Staring: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, and Scarlett Johansson.

136 minutes.

A special effects extravaganza with a plot as thin as a wet tissue, best describes this “moving picture.”  (I hesitate to use the term.)  And move it does—all the time, all over the screen, and all over what svelte plot there is.

In essence, this film is a remake of the classic 1957 film  Shootout at the OK Corral.  Today’s film mise en scene in current day and instead of six-shooters we see futuristic weapons that could wipe out mankind/womankind/etc..  There is the good guy and his sidekick (naturally), the good/bad/good female, the hard-as-nails. know-it-all top gun; and, of course the eeevil big-time manager who plans to rule the world.  Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease!.

Here’s this fellows scheme: his cadre has pinpointed millions of people to be terminated because they are miscreants, old, sick, stupid, nonproductive, etc.  As a result, the remaining folks will live in a utopian society under his control. Does this sound familiar circa, 1933-1945?

At times, the dialogue is so trite and spoken so ineptly that I slid down in my seat; embarrassed for the patrons in the theater with me who had to listen and see this tripe.  There is not one character in this charade of a film that engenders empathy—no one with whom we can identify, no situation or location that renders true.  It’s impossible to willing suspension disbelief in this film—the audience’s keystone to a successful moving-picture.

This film is nonsense, idiotic, stupid, and a waste of time.  Save you money.  Stay home.

 

Amelia, 2009 Film Review

ImageFox Sunlight Pictures.  Mira Nair, director.  Hilary Swank and Richard Gere lead actors.  Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan screen-play writers.  111 minutes.   2009.

So I’m tardy with this review.  Not so.  I published it in In Sync magazine in its January 2010 issue—shortly after I viewed this film.  Now that my new social media is functioning, I’m publishing it again.  It synchronizes with my upcoming short story book Aviators, Adventurers, and Assassins which contains a flagship documentary-style novella that reveals the skullduggery extant on Earhart’s last flight, entitled Amelia.   (See sheltoncomm.com)

I’m an ol’ codger.  Amelia Earhart was an icon in my youth.  As an eight-year old nipper, I remember clearly where I was and what I was doing when I heard on the radio broadcast that Amelia Earhart was missing somewhere near Howland Island in the Central Pacific.  Yes, I’m that young.  With the massive search conducted by the US Navy, I was confident that they’d find her.  To no avail, unfortunately.    Accordingly, I have a vested interest in Amelia Earhart.

To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, Amelia is an awful film.  It’s a great film.

Let’s explore “awful” first.   Amelia is a mishmash of miscellaneous scenes that lack coherence and purpose.  This film stumbles along some path I cannot discern.  If the viewer does not know the details of Amelia’s life, they may well wonder, when the lights come on, What was this film about?  

Infrequently does Amelia engender empathy.  Without empathy, there is no involvement, entertainment, or communication.  On the whole, directing and acting are pedestrian—save Swank, from time-to-time.  Gere is wooden—not the robust hustler that was George Putnam.

I cringed that far, far too many close-ups show the actors staring into space looking at something off screen, or infernally smiling about something we cannot fathom or see.  Amelia is more of a romantic film than an autobiographical film of the dynamic aviatrix.  Perhaps, I expected too much.

Technical errors are myriad.  No need to discuss here; there’re posted on IMDb.   However, I’ll discuss a few that particularly vex me.   This film overlooks the fact that Amelia Earhart was a mediocre pilot, at best.  That’s what killed her.  She was over confident, stubborn, and had a narcissistic ego.  She believed Putnam’s publicity.  She failed to listen to her mentor, Paul Mantz, about learning Morse code and using the long-range antenna to transmit its signals.  She was palpably ignorant about radio procedures and its technical factors.  Her refusal to practice radio protocols with her guide ship, the USCGC Itasca is particularly troubling and is the direct reason of her death.

The last scene is a disaster—a collage of technical nonsense.  Earhart is lost.  She cannot find Howland.  She is low on petrol.  And she cannot communicate with the Itasca with congruity.  Again prior knowledge of these few critical minutes is essential to understanding this scene and her fate.

If I were directing this last scene, we’d see the Electra from a high-angle, rear shot flying over the ocean and receding in size until it disappears.  On the soundtrack, we hear the twin-engines on the Electra purring loudly.  As the Electra decreases in size, the volume of the engines reduces in synchronization with the visuals. Mixed with the engine sounds, we faintly hear the jumbled voice radio-communications between Amelia and the Itasca. This voice also fades in volume.  Shortly we hear the engines supper, cough, and quit, one by one.  Then silence as the Electra disappears from view.

It’s a great film.  I was disappointed that Art Direction did not get a nomination for an Academy Award.  Airplanes, props, costumes, and automobiles set an authentic 1930s ambiance.  Swank is Amelia—outstanding look-alike with makeup, hairstyle, and clothes.  Most of the flying scenes of the ol’-time airplanes are spectacular—even the computer generated.  The blending of newsreel footage into the narrative is excellent.  Lastly, the Richard Rogers and Lorentz Hart tune Blue Moon sung by a pretend Billie Holiday stirs the soul.

 

 

 

 

 

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