Thursday, April 09, 2015

"Nixon" (1995)

"Always remember: others may hate you. But those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."

President Richard Nixon is alone with his thoughts, listening to his tape recordings and reflecting on a life that is about to come crashing down around him. Haunted by the past and surrounded on all sides by enemies waiting for his fall, he finds himself trapped within his failures, suffocating under the weight of his memories.

This film covers the length and breadth of Nixon's life, with Anthony Hopkins in the titular role. He does a great job of bringing the 40th President to life. While he looked nothing like the man, Hopkins adopted several of his affectations that translate well on the screen, the barking voice and the jutting teeth. There are also several moments where a flick of his tongue gives him a rather reptilian look.

Hopkins and Director Oliver Stone manage to present a story that explains rather than excuses the man for his actions. Surprisingly they create a somewhat sympathetic character in Nixon, showing him to be a man eventually consumed by guilt. Burdened by the religious expectations of his mother and the ghosts of two dead brothers, their memory hung like a weight around his brain. But we're also shown the petty creature behind the mask, the man who remembered all who'd wronged him, punishing them in his own way, years later. He is always the wronged party, always on the defensive no matter the circumstance. He was a man continuously left unsatisfied by his successes, driven by feelings of inferiority that would eventually lead to his own destruction, encouraging viewers to both pity and loathe him.

While a lengthy film, the use of music lends an amount of emotionality to scenes and creates tension that drives the story forward.

Where the film fell flat was the extraneous use of visuals to illustrated emotion and memory. They felt jarring and random, interrupting the scene and drawing the viewer out of the film. Instead of added to the overall tapestry of the story they rather cluttered it. As well, it felt like overkill for the film to imply that Nixon was involved in the Kennedy assassination.

I would recommend watching the film primarily for the Hopkins and the supporting characters. They bring these characters to life, providing viewers with a front-row seat to Nixon's rise and fall.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

All the President's Men (1976)

On June 17, 1972, five men broke in to the Watergate Hotel with the intent of bugging the Democratic National Headquarters. By many, including a number of newspapers it was believed to be an unimportant crime. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post believed otherwise and it was their persistence that ended up uncovering one of the biggest political scandals in American history. 

As is fitting in a story about journalists we begin with a blank page. Soon enough though we're treated to a great visual of a typewriter stamping out a date, the keystrokes layered with gunshots and whip-lashes to give the scene some punch, foreshadowing the writing of many articles. From there we are treated to stock footage of President Nixon addressing Congress, the triumph before the fall.

The casting of Redford and Hoffman was a genius move as the two play off against each other well. You really believe their enthusiasm and dedication to following every lead, even when it appears hopeless. Apparently the two learned each others lines so they could talk over and interrupt one another, creating more organic conversations. The addition of Jason Robards also lends an amount of gravitas that helps to anchor the newsroom, lending an authenticity to the reluctance and risk taken by the Washington Post to publish stories on the Watergate scandal.

One detractor is the almost non-existent soundtrack. For the first 30 minutes there's no music whatsoever and after it's used too sparingly. In a political thriller music can be key to inform viewers to mood, character motivations, foreshadowing, etc. Without it, there are noticeable gaps where music would have helped elevate and fill out the scene. As well, there were a long of takes that dragged on and the lack of music left those scenes feeling stale and hollow.

As well the lack of transition scenes was a little jarring for some. With a movie like this, running at a breakneck pace and so packed full of information in the vein of names and numbers, it's important for the viewer to understand where and when they are at all times.  Transitions can help ease this verbal overflow and not leave the viewer confused over people, places and things.

There's a complete lack of tension in the movie until Woodward's meeting with Deep Throat where whistling is heard in the background. Before that point the Watergate scandal and the newspaper articles felt completely separate. Here they come together and the possible danger these men are putting themselves in, becomes palpable. These journalists aren't just uncovering a story; they may be risking their lives.

If you're looking for a good movie about journalists and or a political thriller I would highly recommend this film.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Captain Blood (1935)

Up that rigging, you monkeys! Aloft! There's no chains to hold you now. Break out those sails and watch them fill with the wind that's carrying us all to freedom! 

Peter Blood is a physician with the unfortunate luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He treats a patient involved in the Monmouth Rebellion, attempting to overthrow the of King of England and gets caught up amongst the rebels. For his involvement by association he's branded a traitor and sentenced to death. His fate is commuted though when the king is persuaded to sell the prisoners into slavery for profit and thus begins the long descent for Blood who protests his innocence at every opportunity, imagining every man shares the same scruples as himself. It's only upon arriving in Port Royal and encountering Arabella Bishop and her father the governor that Blood comes to realize the permanence and inherent danger in his situation. Arabella grows attached and does her best to help him but his pride gets in the way and when given the opportunity for escape and revenge he takes it, becoming the pirate of the title.

This was the movie that really introduced Errol Flynn to the world. Before this he had only played bit parts, non-speaking and supporting roles. This was his first starring part in America and boy what an entrance it was. He was charismatic and energetic, his big smile and bright laugh lighting up the screen. And there's no doubting the chemistry between him and Olivia de Havilland, despite the lack of development for her character.

The film also stars Basil Rathbone as a rival pirate captain and there's a great 'swashbuckling' scene between the two. Rathbone was actually a recreational fencer in his free time so if a real fight had broken out he would likely have wiped the floor with Flynn.

As well the film benefits from an epic sweeping soundtrack by Erich Korngold, lending some majesty to scenes with a thinner budget. It also gives the film a fighting chance against another swashbuckler of better quality made in the same year "Mutiny on the Bounty" though the latter would beat it out for Best Picture.

One complaint would be that the film is rather feast or famine when it comes to pacing and plot. The good parts come in waves and with the film nearly three hours long it can drag at times. This leads to a lack of tension and even Flynn can't distract from this. Though the film received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing and Best Sound Editing there were better naval films made in the same year which makes this feel like a diet pirate movie.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett

“Jack was too absorbed in his work to hear the bell. He was mesmerized by the challenge of making soft, round shapes of hard rock. The stone had a will of its own, and if he tried to make it do something it did not want to do, it would fight him, and his chisel would slip, or dig in too deeply, spoiling the shapes. But once he had got to know the lump of rock in front of him he could transform it. The more difficult the task, the more fascinated he was. He was beginning to feel that the decorative carving demanded by Tom was too easy. Zigzags, lozenges, dogtooth, spirals and plain roll moldings bored him, and even these leaves were rather stiff and repetitive. He wanted to curve natural-looking foliage, pliable and irregular, and copy the different shapes of real leaves, oak and ash and birch.”

This is the story of a cathedral and the people who fight for its birth and for its destruction, all encompassed by a succession crisis in 12th century England, complicated by secrets, lies and betrayals. Throughout the book, reader’s switch between several protagonists important in the life of the cathedral, experiencing the medieval period from down in the dirt, just struggling to survive.

I appreciated how much background was given to most of the characters, including our point of view characters. Readers come to understand how much Prior Philip cares for his makeshift family after his own had been killed when he was young; they root for Aliena to win the day after everything is taken from her over and over again; they cheer Jack on in his pursuit of becoming a Master Builder even when obstacles like family and his social economic status work against him. Follett makes you care about the fate of these characters and wonder about how they’re going to extricate themselves from certain situations. I also heartily enjoyed the moment when people pulled together to try and thwart the antagonists who seemed to have entirely too many opportunities for mischief.

The story did have a few glaring problems though. The pacing is poor, creating a lack of tension for the first half of the book. While the story does a good job of setting up the plot and introducing the characters, the action didn’t pick up until the end of the book. It felt like the majority of the conflict was held in reserve for the last half while the beginning was taken up with dialogue and description. The problem is likely in the switching between protagonists which creates a stop and start effect in the narrative, interrupting the fluidity of the story.

Follett does a good job of grounding the reader in the scene, giving you a taste of the period and all its myriad smells and sights. But there is entirely too much time spent on describing the architecture within the story. It’s understandable that some time would be devoted to this as the book centers around the building of a cathedral but it took too much time away from the story. Also, it seems unlikely that the majority of readers would be familiar with the features described so it would have helped if there had been diagrams at the front of the book. It was difficult to visualize some of the descriptions which brought me right out of the story.

Overall it was an interesting story but if a thousand page story is overlong for you I would recommend the miniseries produced several years ago. Keep in mind though that they do make changes to the story.  New characters and plotlines are added to flesh out the story and add tension. There are also several key changes made to characters which I didn’t agree with as it altered their entire personality.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Learning from Les Miserables: Week 6-8

Last year I tried to complete "Les Miserables" as part of a year-long read. I had barely started the book before life got in the way and I wasn't able to finish the story. This year I am determined to get through the entire thing. Here is the post I made at the beginning of my read and here is the one for Weeks 4 & 5. Below are notes to catalogue my read. At the moment it's mostly diction and events and persons I'm unfamiliar with. As I read further I hope to make posts filled with questions and insights into characters and plot points. Do not read this if you don't want the book to be spoiled.

Week 6

Frans Hals circa 1649-1700
Rene Descartes - 1596–1650
He was a French philosopher, mathematician, and writer, dubbed the 'Father of Modern Philosophy'.  Much subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied closely to this day.

Richardson "Pamela" - An epistolary novel (novel composed of a series of letteers) written by Samuel Richardson, first published in 1740. It tells the story of a beautiful 15-year old maidservant named Pamela Andrews, whose nobleman master, Mr. B, makes unwanted advances towards her after the death of his mother, whose maid she was since age 12.

Author unknown 1665
Baruch Spinoza - 1632-1677
He was a philosopher whose importance was not fully realized until years after his death. By laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism including modern conceptions of the self and, arguably, the universe,he came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy. His magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics in which he opposed Descarte's mind-body dualism, has earned him recognition as one of Western philosophy's most important thinkers.

Etching after portrait by de Reisner Circa
Marc-Antoine Madeleine Desaugiers - 1772-1827
He was a French composer, dramatist and song-writer.

Harridans - A strict, bossy, or belligerent old woman

Artist unknown
Apuleius - 125 - 180CE
He was a Latine prose writer who studied Platonist philosophy in Athens. Once he was accused of using magic to gain the attentions of a wealthy widow. He distributed a work he wrote in his own defense known as the Apologia.

Manon Lescaut - An opera in fourt acts by Giacomo Puccini. The story is based on a novel by the Abbe Prevost.

Artist unknown
Aspasia - 470BCE - 400BCE
A Milesian woman famous for her involvement with the Athenian statesman Pericles. Little is known about her life but she may have influenced Pericles and Athenian politics. She is mentioned in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes and Xenophon.

Syllogism - A formal argument consisting of a major and a minor premise and a conclusion Ex. "No foxes are birds"
"All parrots are birds"
"No parrots are foxes"

Copy of Ktesilas Artist unknown
Pericles -  495BCE - 429BCE
He was the most prominent and influential Greek statesman, orator and general of Athens during the Golden Age - specifically the time between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.

Fustian - A coarse sturdy cloth made of cotton and flax

Physiognomist - A person who judges human character based on facial features

Charles Antoine Guillaume Pigault-Lebrun - 1753-1835
He twice carried off young ladies of some position, and was in consequence twice imprisoned. The first died almost immediately after her elopement; the second, Mlle de Salens, he married. He became a soldier in the Queen's Guards, then a very unsuccessful actor, and a teacher of French. He also wrote more than twenty plays. 

Cosette is Cinderella! She has evil "step sisters" a terrible mother who makes her do chores and she lives in squalor.

Week 7

Recondite - Little known or secret

Vetch - Any of several climbing plants of the legume family, bearing pealike flowers, esp. Vicia sativa, cultivated for forage and soil improvement

 "The supreme happiness in life is the assurance of being loved for oneself, even in spite of oneself."

"Soul gropes for soul and finds it."

"One would not exchange one's darkness for all light."

"We are radiant in our darkness."

I'm surprised by how many gems I keep finding sprinkled throughout. Hugo has these profound quotes interspersed

Faubourg - An ancient French term that could be defined as "suburb"

Savoyards - A dialect of Arpitan (Franco-Provençal). It is spoken in some territories of the historical Duchy of Savoy, nowadays a geographic area spanning France and Switzerland.
Calumny - The making of false and defamatory statements in order to damage someone's reputation; slander

Educable - Capable of being educated or taught

"Animals are nothing but the portrayal of our virtues and vices made manifest to our eyes, the visible reflections of our souls."

Javert hates himself. I would feel bad for him if he wasn't such a douche.

Garde Champetre - A garde champĂȘtre (rural guard) is the combination of a forest ranger, game warden and police officer in certain rural communes in France. Their job is to report to the local mayor. Many of these officers wear green uniforms and many carry firearms. They fall under the general supervision of the Gendarmerie.

By Achille Deveria 19thC
Eugene Francois Vidocq - 1775 - 1857
He was a French criminal and criminalist whose life story inspired several writers, including Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac.  The former criminal became the founder and first director of the crime-detection Surete Nationale as well as the head of the first known private detective agendy.  Vidocq is considered to be the father of modern criminology and of the French police department. Her is also regarded as the first private detective Vautrin - A character from the novels of French writer Honore de Balzac in the La Comedie humaine series. His real name is Jacques Collin. He appears in the novels Le Pere Goriot (Father Goriot, 1834/35) under the name Vautrin.

By Karl Vogel Von Vogelstein ca1810
Joseph de Maistre - 1753 - 1821
He was a Savoyard philosopher, writer, diplomat and lawyer.  He defended hierarchichal societies and a monarchical state in the period immediately following the French Revolution. He called for the restoration of the Bourbons to the throne of France and argued that the Pope should have ultimate authority in temporal matters. He also claimed that the rationalist rejection of Christianity was directly responsible for the disorder and bloodshed which followed the French Revolution of 1789.

Cosmogony - Any scientific theory concerning the coming into existence (or origin) of either the cosmos (or universe), or the so-called "reality" of sentient beings

Gens Sans Aveu - Vagabonds

What's wrong with Javert? Madeleine's doing a lot of good. Leave him alone!

Law-Scrivener - A person who writes a document for another, usually for a fee

Louis d'or - The Louis d'or is any number of French coins first introduced by Louis XIII n 1640. The name derives from the depiction of the portrait of King Louis on one side of the coin; the French royal coat of arms is on the reverse. The coin was replaced by the French franc at the time of the revolution and later the similarly-valued Napoleon, although a limited number of Louis were also minted during the "Bourbon Restoration" under Louis XVIII.

How does Javert know of only one man capable of holding up a cart? How does he know Madeleine is 'the one'? This is just silly.

"No one is more avidly curious about other people's doings than those persons whom they do not concern."

Fiacre - A small hackney coach

Suborn - Bribe or otherwise induce (someone) to commit an unlawful act such as perjury

"An old woman who lived in the house taught her the art of living in penury. There are two stages - living on little, and living on nothing. They are like two rooms, the first dark, the second pitch-black."

"Paupers cannot reach the end of their abode, or of their destiny, except by crouching ever lower."

Fantine is an interesting mother. She sells her looks for her child; her hair, her teeth. Interesting to see the lengths of sacrifice that some people will go through.

Week 8

Pont-a-Mousson - An industrial town situated on the Moselle River. It contains several historicla monuments including ones from the 18th century.

"Curiosity is a form of gluttony: to see is to devour."

Peremptory - (esp. of a person's manner or actions) Insisting on immediate attention or obedience, esp. in a brusquely imperious way

Simon-pure - Genuinely and thoroughly pure.

Chary - Cautious; wary

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Timeless: Photos from Yesteryear 5

Here is another series of beautiful photos from As always I try to pick out photos that look interesting or affect me in some way.

On the road with her family one month from South Dakota. Tulelake, Siskiyou County, Calif. September 1939. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
 Lange always has beautiful photos that look staged but aren't.

Mack Sennett's bathing beauties in serpentine confetti, April 24, 1918. 

It's interesting to see the date on this one. I would have expected a picture like this to be from after 1926 but no, this was taken during the war. Offhand, that's a lot of confetti.

Model airplanes decorate the ceiling of the train concourses at Union Station in Chicago, Illinois. Jack Delano, 1943.

This was one of those fantastic photos that made me look a little closer. It was clearly inside a building but I didn't know they were model planes until I read the caption.

A photo of William Grass on the starting line. National Photo Company, 1922.

He looks rather determined doesn't he?

The title of this 1905 photo by George Lawrence is "Rubbing," with a copyright assigned to Cluett, Peabody & Co., which in the 1930s developed the Sanforization pre-shrink process for cottons. 

I picked this one because she's got a rather cheeky look on her face. Also I can't imagine washing clothes by hand. The past really is another country.

Eighteen-year-old Ruth Malcomson, Miss Philadelphia of 1924. Later that year in Atlantic City, she would be crowned Miss America. 5x7 glass negative, Atlantic Foto Service/George Grantham Bain Collection.

That's one crazy looking trophy. It's interesting to see how thing begins and trying to link the steps of it must have taken to evolve into what it is now, such as the Miss America pageant.

Eastport, Maine. August 1911. "Nan de Gallant, 4 Clark Street, 9 year old cartoner, Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #2. Packs some with her mother. Mother and two sisters work in factory. One sister has made $7 in one day. During the rush season, the women begin work at 7 a.m., and at times work until midnight. Brother works on boats. The family comes from Perry, Maine, just for the summer months. Work is very irregular. Nan is already a spoiled child." Lewis W. Hine.

She would fit right in with "Children of the Corn" don't you think? She has what my mother calls, 'the Look', an inherited expression passed down from mother to daughter.

Powerhouse Mechanic and Steam Pump (1920). One of Lewis Wickes Hine's celebrated "work portraits" made after he completed his decade-long project documenting child labor. Juniper Gallery Fine Art Print.

This seems to be an iconic image as I've seen it grace fancy coffee table photography books before.

"Children's Delight" carousel wagon with piano or calliope, circa 1910. George B. Marx Wagon Co., Brooklyn. 

                             This looks so cute but also kind of sketchy as in it doesn't look very safe.

August 1939. Migratory boy in squatter camp. Has come to Yakima Valley, Washington, for the third year to pick hops. Mother: "You'd be surprised what that boy can pick."  Photograph by Dorothea Lange.

 This kid has a determined look about him