"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

Game of Thrones: The Battle of Winterfell and the Fog of War

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****WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES EPISODE THE LONG NIGHT (SEASON 8 EPISODE 3)****

Last Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones (Season 8 Episode 3), titled The Long Night, was the climactic battle between the the Starks and their allies against the Night King and his army of undead wights. The Battle of Winterfell, as it has been dubbed, is thought to be the penultimate clash on the iconic program, with only the fight between the Stark/Targaryen forces against Cersei Lannister and her army in Kings Landing remaining.

The Long Night was a strange episode as the Battle of Winterfell was built up for years as a cataclysmic clash between the forces of good and evil, literally life and death, but the show uncharacteristically deviated from its long standing thematic and narrative traditions by limiting the amount of carnage upon the main characters of the show.

Game of Thrones made its name by flouting Hollywood conventions and sacrificing its lead characters on the altar of great story telling. Ned Stark lost his head so that Game of Thrones could be taken seriously, and the Red Wedding solidified the shows commitment to leading character carnage…but in The Long Night, way too many characters survived the apocalyptic battle. There is no way that Lady Mormont, Jorah Mormont (bad night for House Mormont!), Beric and Theon Greyjoy should be the only notable characters to go down in the Battle of Winterfell.

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How did Davos Seaworth, Brianne of Tarth, Tormund, Varys, Missandei, Grey Worm and Podrick not die? I understand why they’d want to save Jon Snow Daenerys, Tyrion, Jaime, Sansa, Arya and Bran…but I don’t get why secondary characters weren’t slaughtered en masse. And even the ones who did die went in very Hollywood ways, with Lady Mormont’s action hero death while killing a zombie giant the most dubious. And while we are at it, Arya’s killing of the Night King was cool and all, but not totally in keeping with the show’s grounding in its established reality. I mean, how did Arya jump over all these people to get to the Night King? And if Game of Thrones is going all Hollywood, why not have Arya die while killing the Night King, at least then it feels somewhat in keeping with the shows themes?

Narrative choices aside, the biggest issue people are having with The Long Night is the cinematography of Fabian Wagner and director Miguel Sapochik, with many complaints that the show was much too dark and too visually muddled. I happen to agree with those complaints and thought it would be a worthy topic to briefly examine.

Game of Thrones has done an exceptional job of filming “medieval” combat over the years and so I was surprised to see them flail about on The Long Night. The mistake that the creators made was to try and convey the “fog of war”, the confusion and disorientation that can accompany combat, by literally creating a white/blue snow fog to simply obfuscating visual clarity. This sort of approach is an error that many make and it never fails to fail.

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To be fair, the episode did have some bright cinematographic moments though, the lighting of the Dothraki swords and their charge into the darkness being one of them. But then the visuals went down hill when the White Walkers conjured up a wind storm to conceal their movements and sow confusion. That is a great battle plan for the White Walkers to take Winterfell, but a bad one for tv viewers trying to watch the fight.

There may be two reason why Wagner and Sapochik may have made the decision to muddy the visual waters at Winterfell, the first being that they wanted viewers to experience the chaos and confusion of war, the second being that they wanted to save some money from their huge budgets by limiting the amount of special effects they had to use to cover the scope and scale of the enormous battle. Both reasons are legitimate but misguided. Regardles of why, the end result was that viewers didn’t feel like they were participants in the Battle of Winterfell, they felt like they were going blind.

It is a common mistake to conflate darkness with a lack of light, what darkness means in cinematic terms is a a sharp contrast between dark and light. In cinematic “darkness” viewers still have visual clarity but with a “lack of light”, contrast gets watered down and visual coherence evaporates.

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Clear and clean contrast between dark and light make for clear and coherent images that convey both narrative and thematic information. For example, go watch The Favourite (2018), and notice the exquisite use of candles in the voids of darkness. Those images propel the story and the sub-text by using ‘illumination’ (literally and figuratively) that marks a clear delineation between the dark and the light. In The Long Night, light and dark wash into each other, colors are non existent and the action all becomes a visually muddled, grey mess.

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Two films came out in 1998, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, that showed visually interesting ways to convey the fog of war. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and its iconic Omaha Beach assault scene is a perfect example of how to maintain visual clarity while creating a sense of anxiety and confusion (the fog of war). Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski‘s camera dances amidst an understated and muted light from an amphibious vehicle, into the water, and up the zig-zag maze of the beach all while under assault from barely discernible machine gun nests. Kaminski’s camera picks up the textures of the muted colors and materials in each shot. Viewers are given a soldier’s eye view of the carnage of D-Day, and the camera movements and tangible textures help to convey the confusion of that assault, but the visuals were never unclear for more than a brief second or so. Kaminski’s camera shows us what is happening very precisely and distinctly and its handheld movements aided in creating tension and anxiety in viewers.

Later in the film Spielberg uses a character looking through a telescopic sight to watch a battle to convey the fog of war and confusion of what is happening. This sequence is interesting because unlike in the Omaha Beach scene where viewers are active participants in the action, in the telescopic sight scene the character becomes an audience member as he tries to watch the action and discern what is happening. To Spielberg’s credit, this was a great way to create psychological reciprocity between the audience and the character.

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In The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick and his cinematographer John Toll use crisp and clean visuals with dynamic and rich colors to convey the fog of war. In the sequence where the Marines must make their way up a lush, green hillside to find and eliminate a machine gun nest, Malick and Toll give viewers a clear look at the surroundings, and just like the Marines, no clear shot of the machine gun nest. The rolling green of the hills are like a never ending sea and the machine gun nest a crocodile that only pokes its eyes and nose above the water line. The beauty of Malick and Toll’s visuals is in stark contrast to the physical and psychological mayhem unleashed with them.

Malick also gives clear focus to the nature which surrounds the battle, with Toll’s camera lingering long on a flower or an insect crawling on a leave of grass. Malick and Toll’s use of natural light and their ability to crisply define the colors, textures and contrasts of the setting make his fog of war confusion breathtakingly beautiful and utterly horrifying. (watch The Thin Red Line and notice that Malick’s camera picks up every little bump on Marine’s helmets…it creates an intimacy through texture that is one of Malick’s signature, understated styles.)

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The Long Night made the same error of visual incoherence that Clint Eastwood made in American Sniper, where Eastwood rolled in a sand storm in Iraq to convey the moral confusion of the Iraq war. That tactic did not visually work in American Sniper either as it created little more than a cloud of yellow dust just like The Long Night gave us a blueish white cloud of snow. In Eastwood’s case I can almost guarantee you that his creative decision to muddy things up was a result of budgetary concerns, as he is a notorious slave to budget. As for The Long Night’s decisions making…they do have large budgets, but hey also have at least one more big battle in this final season, so maybe they were cutting corners too.

Game of Thrones have made some of the greatest battle scenes in television history, as the Battle of the Bastards, The Spoils of War and Hardhome have shown, but with The Long Night they fell into more than just the fog of war trap, they failed to fully establish the geography of the scenes and battle ground and never established a coherent time line.

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As the Battle of Winterfell raged on, the locations of characters was never clearly elucidated, and so the lack of visual clarity became ever more heightened. I understand not wanting to give the “god shot”, an overhead view of things to show who is where and what is happening, but by failing to make the geography clear, the battle felt redundant and circular, and lacked specifics which could have heightened dramatic tension to a greater degree.

The timeline was as muddied as the visuals, as Arya ran through the castle trying to escape wights in an extended sequence, the battle raged outside. But when the camera returned to the battle outside, nothing had changed, and because viewers had no central character upon which to focus, the battle seemed aimless and incoherent.

Maybe the focus should have been on Samwell, and we viewers could have seen the battle through his perspective at times (like the telescopic scene in Saving Private Ryan), or we could shift perspective through a series of characters in order to get clarity on different areas of the fight. Maybe have Jaime, Arya, Jon Snow, Danerys and Theon lead us through the battle and we see what they see…so when Lady Mormont gets killed it is through Jaime’s perspective…things like that.

Look, I thoroughly enjoy Game of Thrones, I admire the show for its integrity and quality, and I was disappointed in parts of the episode the Long Night. The bottom line is this, Game of Thrones has given us eight glorious seasons of thrills, chills, carnage, nudity, incest, murder, dragons, zombies and palace intrigue, I only hope they can right the ship for the final three episodes after their visual and thematic missteps in the much discussed Battle of Winterfell.

©2019




Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars                  

Popcorn Curve Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. No reason to see this movie. Another regurgitated rehash of a retread from the creatively bankrupt studios of Hollywood.       

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, written by Colin Treverrow and Derek Connolly and directed by J.A. Bayona, is the story of genetically resurrected dinosaurs being rescued from their now shuttered island park in order to save them from extinction via a volcanic eruption. The film stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard with supporting performances from Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daneilla Pineda and James Cromwell.

I, like most children big and small, like dinosaurs…I admit it. Now, do I like them enough to pay $12.50 to see them run around and cause havoc on the big screen? No. But do I like them enough to use MoviePass to basically see dinosaur inspired chaos for free? You betcha. It was in this state of mind that I ventured out to see Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom which is the fifth film of the Jurassic Park series and the second film in the Jurassic World trilogy which began in 2015 with the film Jurassic World. The good thing is, if you have seen any of the other four Jurassic Park films, you have basically seen this one. The stories in this franchise are all, ironically enough, clones of one another, with characters making idiotic or nefarious decisions that lead to a plethora of carnage when dinosaurs are unleashed and end up behaving like…well...dinosaurs. 

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In regards to the specifics of Fallen Kingdom, the good news is...that Chris Pratt has developed into a totally serviceable movie star, sort of a poor man's Harrison Ford. Another bit of good news is that Bryce Dallas Howard is an appealing screen presence who is able to carry the weight of a big budget action movie, which is no small feat. That is the end of the good news section of this review. 

Now for the bad news…writers Colin Treverrow and Derek Connolly, who wrote Jurassic World (2015) and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom as well as the next Jurassic World film, are maybe the worst screenwriters working in Hollywood. Treverrow and Connolly are remarkably inept at writing a cogent and clear narrative, instead deciding to embrace a multitude of flaccid story lines that completely lack originality and drama . Treverrow and Connolly are so devoid of talent, skill and craft that one has to wonder what compromising material they have on Hollywood big wigs that allows them to have careers…it must be a substantial bit of dirt considering how awful they are at what they do.

The screenwriter's failures are only overshadowed by another bit of bad news…director J.A. Bayona's inability to piece together an even remotely coherent film. Bayona's failure is even more disturbing as unlike his screenwriters, he at least showed some signs of promise with his film A Monster Calls (2016). Sadly, with Fallen Kingdom, Bayona churns out a piece of ham-fisted garbage that is riddled with such egregiously poor editing that it is stunning. Bayona's decidedly anemic storytelling combined with Treverrow and Connolly's wretched script, make for a predictable and dull cinematic affair. 

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is basically a satire of itself, cannibalizing other better films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or every other Jurassic Park film, for second rate thrills that are so familiar as to breed contempt. For example, Fallen Kingdom repeatedly tries to recreate Spielberg's original iconic scene from Jurassic Park where a T-Rex gives a dominant roar to proclaim his resurgence…so much so that I felt like I was watching auditions for a new MGM lion. Then there is Chris Pratt going full Indiana Jones when he runs away from a volcanic explosion with dinosaurs chasing him just like Indy ran down a hill with natives chasing him in Spielberg's original action/adventure gem…the shots are nearly identical. 

The writing, directing and editing aren't the only things wrong with Fallen Kingdom, it also boasts some truly atrocious acting. James Cromwell plays some old guy in a wheelchair, but his legs aren't the only thing that don't work as Cromwell's dreadful British accent falls in and out so much I thought he was playing a schizophrenic with multiple personalities. Cromwell has been around forever and is a consistently terrible actor, but he has been doing it for so long we've just become accustomed to his awfulness. 

Speaking of terrible acting, Rafe Spall plays some other guy that no one cares about or believes and is totally forgettable in every single way. His compatriot Toby Jones plays what I assume is supposed to be an evil auctioneer or something which is exactly as moronic as it sounds. You could've cast cardboard cutouts and had stage hands dressed in black bodysuits move them around and you would've gotten more genuine performances.

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To no one's joy but his own, Jeff Goldblum took time away from his work on apartment.com commercials to reprise his role of Dr. Ian Malcolm from earlier Jurassic Park films. Goldblum is a total mystery, why he has a career and people think he is interesting is beyond me. His performance in Fallen Kingdom is noteworthy though mainly because he is able to maintain continuity by meticulously repeating his earlier abysmal performances from the other Jurassic Park films. The only person who thinks Jeff Goldblum is giving an intriguing performance in this film is Jeff Goldblum…and he is damn sure of it.

Fallen Kingdom is so riddled with inconsistencies and illogic the film couldn't help but collapse upon itself. For instance, the prices for the dinosaurs, of which there are only a dozen or so left on the planet, run around $10 million each…which will buy you a decent, but not extravagant, house here in Los Angeles. When a four bedroom, three bath house costs as much as a Tricerotops, you know our economy has gone to hell in a hand basket. The economics of Fallen Kingdom are obviously as illogical as the characters actions and as shitty as the storytelling. 

Another equally inane thing about Fallen Kingdom are its politics. As long time readers know, my Historical Wave Theory posits that the arts, and in this day and age cinema in particular, can be leading indicators for the mood of the collective unconscious. With that said, there are films that are lagging indicators…and Fallen Kingdom falls into that category at least as far as its surface/conscious politics are concerned (the dominant color scheme of the film, green - both dark and light - and vibrant orange, and the archetypal narrative at the foundational core of the film, actually say a great deal more about what's happening in the collective unconscious than the movie's politics, but that is a very long discussion for another day) . 

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Fallen Kingdom's politics are decidedly neo-liberal, with government seen as a benign or benevolent force. Every villain in the film is a White man, and one of them even utters the Trumpian phrase "what a nasty woman" in regards to the film's feminist character Zia, who is quick to say she is a doctor and is not as delicate as men think. In one scene, Zia's actions (I won't describe them in order to avoid spoilers - but her particular act is important to note for its symbolic meaning) lead to numerous villains getting their comeuppance, all of whom are the vilest of creatures…the generic White male. 

Keeping with the lagging indicator theme, there is one bad guy singled out who is a Russian oligarch. He is the baddest of the bad guys, no doubt because he is Russian and we all know Russians are pure evil…and may not even be human they are so barbaric…at least that's what Hollywood has taught me. The Russian bad guy, the Trumpian dino-hunter and the generic woman-hating, patriarch enforcing White men are all such obvious and blatant bits of pandering it is cringe-worthy.

It is interesting to note that Steven Spielberg is Executive Producer of Fallen Kingdom, and he was also director of last year's The Post, another lagging indicator film that was well behind the times in regard to the collective unconscious. It is telling that Spielberg is no longer in touch with the collective unconscious, but that is the fate of all propagandists who try and control collective consciousness rather than connect with it. By trying to manage and manipulate audiences or to "give them what they want", Spielberg has detached from his artistic muse which is how he connected with the collective unconscious in the first place. Spielberg's quest to manipulate audiences has thus rendered his films, even those he only produces, as being culturally irrelevant at best, and at worst insidious propaganda. 

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In conclusion, even if you are looking for just a little bit of summer movie escapist fun, Fallen World would seem to fall short on that account too as at the screening I attended, more than half of the audience checked their phones periodically throughout the movie, so much so that it looked like random fireflies lighting up on a hot summer's night. Apparently these folks (many of whom were retirees and middle aged people, not the usual cell phone suspects - teenagers and millennials) wanted to escape from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom as much the dinosaurs wanted to get off that volcanic island. Me…even though I dig me some dinosaurs, I would rather be stuck in hot lava with a T-Rex chomping on my groin than ever watch another Jurassic World movie. 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a repetitive, moronic mess of a movie that's only justification for existing is as a commercial for the accompanying Universal amusement park ride and the inevitable mindless sequels coming in its wake, therefore…there is absolutely no need to see it…ever.

©2018

 

Ready Player One: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT. If you like Spielbergian action movies, see it in the theater. If you are lukewarm or want some deeper meaning, there is no reason to see this movie even for free on cable or Netflix.

Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (based upon Cline's book of the same name), is the science-fiction adventure story of 17 year-old orphan Wade West, a skilled gamer living in the slums of Columbus, Ohio who takes on a powerful technology company in a virtual reality game titled The Oasis. The film stars Tye Sheridan as Wade along with Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance and TJ Miller in supporting roles. 

I admit that I was less than enthused about going to see Ready Player One because I tend to find Steven Spielberg to be insufferable as a filmmaker. Spielberg's pedophiliac addiction to recreating child like wonder always feels contrived, formulaic and frankly, a bit creepy to me. It hasn't always been thus, as I think both Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are utter masterpieces, but as the 1970's receded so did Spielberg's balls along with his artistic and aesthetic originality. 

It was in this rather negative frame of mind that I went to see Ready Player One. When the film opened with the iconic keyboard introduction to Van Halen's 1984 mega-hit "Jump" off of their aptly titled album 1984, I have to admit, it got me. You see, as a teenager in the 80's I was a huge fan of Van Halen (and to be clear I was a fan of Van Halen, NOT Van Hagar…so do NOT bring any of that weak-ass Van Hagar shit in here…DO.NOT.DO IT.), so much so that my best friend Keith would routinely play the opening notes on his keyboard, which was my cue to find the nearest chair, couch or table from which I would do my flying split jumps David Lee Roth style. While this usually happened in the midst of a Jack Daniels induced haze, foggy memories remain and they are among the fondest of my young adulthood. 

The signature sound of Eddie Van Halen's keyboards was a striking synchronicity for me that did not just recall good times though, but also something much more existentially unsettling. The darkness recalled was the fact that this month, April (April 17 to be exact), is the 21st anniversary that my "Jump" playing friend Keith was killed. And so when I heard the start of that classic Van Halen song at the opening of Ready Player One, the overwhelming feeling that surged through me wasn't the giddy pulse of nostalgia that Spielberg anticipated, but a profound melancholy and emotional fragility. 

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It is somewhat ironic that I should be triggered to recount the crippling grief of losing a loved one at the beginning of a film where life is entirely disposable and when it is over you just get a to hit a button and start over. The existential questions that boil up to the surface when attempting to contemplate the incomprehensible are ultimately unanswerable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask them. Great artists and great art exists to ask those questions, and to let the silence of the eternal void be their answer. Ready Player One mimes asking big questions, but all it really does is provide easy answers, which renders it a sort of philosophical and artistic fool's gold wrapped in the shallow glitz of pop culture.  

As "Jump" played on, Eddie Van Halen's keyboard is supplemented by David Lee Roth's Spielbergian lyric which perfectly captures the 1980's ethos and quickly becomes the perfect anthem for Wade West, the protagonist of Ready Player One,

"I get up, and nothing gets me down, you've got it tough? I've seen the toughest soul around. And I know, baby just how you feel, you've got to roll with the punches, to get to what's real"

Spielberg's camera follows Wade as he makes his way through "the stacks", a maze of mobile homes piled on top of each other to create a ghetto of makeshift apartment buildings. This opening sequence is not a particularly skilled piece of filmmaking, in fact, it is pretty standard, but it does effectively set the stage for the story, the myth and the subtext that lies ahead. 

The choice of Van Halen's "Jump" is not coincidental, and it reminded me of a quote that Joseph Campbell often used to repeat and which I have often repeated throughout my life. 

A bit of advice, given to a young Native American, at the time of his initiation: "As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think."

The story of Ready Player One is that of Wade West and his Oasis alter ego Parzifal (paging Joseph Campbell and the Holy Grail!), finding the courage to "Jump". Wade West is being initiated from boyhood into manhood and he must pass the tests presented to him…sort of like in a video game…and in the case of Ready Player One…exactly like a video game. 

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Ready Player One is also an unabashed tribute mostly to the pop culture of the 80's (although other decades get slight nods as well), hence the use of Van Halen's "Jump", which is the quintessential 80's anthem from the quintessential 80's band. The movie is populated by, and littered with, the pop cultural remnants from that shoulder padded decade that gave us such cinematic signposts as Back to the Future, Ghostbusters and a cornucopia of John Hughes movies. Ready Player One is also Steven Spielberg's tribute to himself, as he was as much a shaper and creator of the pop-culture of the 1980's and beyond as anyone living or dead. 

Of course, Spielberg sees Ready Player One as an homage, but I see it more as an indictment, or to be even darker, a cinematic eulogy. Spielberg's overall impact on popular culture has been detrimental in deeply cataclysmic ways. As Spielberg ushered in the blockbuster era of moviemaking in the 1980's, he struck a death knell for the artistic renaissance of the Easy Rider-Raging Bull era of the 60's and 70's where auteurs flourished and quality cinema thrived. 

Spielberg's corporatized moviemaking was meant to reinforce the establishment, not rebel against it, as fellow filmmakers of his generation were often trying to do. Spielberg turned from a potential 1970's revolutionary artist to an 1980's establishment Praetorian Guard who churned out pop culture meant to embolden the status quo, appease those in power, anesthetize the masses and fatten his bank account. Spielberg has been a malignant force shaping popular culture for the last forty years, and because of that he is as much to blame as anyone for the artistic, intellectual and cultural decay that is besieging the American soul and which comes to life on screen in Ready Player One. Seen through this perspective, Spielberg's Ready Player One feels like a film about lung cancer made by The Marlboro Man. 

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As evidenced by my reaction to "Jump", I found Ready Player One's 80's nostalgia to be very manipulative, but as someone who grew up in that era, I can attest that it is at times very effectively deployed. But again, it is the end to which that nostalgic means is used with which I have an issue. Much like Trump's Make America Great Again was a nostalgic clarion call for the antisepticism of the 1950's, Spielberg's Ready Player One's nostalgia yearns for a decade just as suffocatingly conformist as the 1950's but even more toxic, the 1980's. 

Ready Player One's mythology, like the mythology of Reagan, Oprah and Spielberg's Baby-Boomer Corporate America where all life is commodified solely for profit, is one that contorts the human heart and psyche in order to make avarice and narcissism virtues and not vices. The form of cheap pop culture grace found in Ready Player One is meant to obfuscate our true humanity and maintain our delusional, money and celebrity centered society. 

Interestingly, Spielberg plays Van Halen's "Jump" for its entirety throughout the film's opening, which is rather striking as he is not a filmmaker, like Scorsese, known for utilizing pop or rock music to great effect. Spielberg's use of pop and rock music in Ready Player One though is done very well, and like the recent spate of television shows mining the 80's for music that can manipulate middle aged and younger generations simultaneously, Spielberg is wise to do so. 

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As much as watching Ready Player One is like watching someone else play a video game, the cavalcade of pop culture and musical references make it a much more palatable and intriguing experience than I imagined it could be. That is not to say that there aren't downfalls to watching a video game movie, there are, such as the characters looking weird and un-relatable and the action being way over the top. 

Like all Spielberg films, there are certainly moments that are so contrived and hackneyed as to be cringe-worthy. Spielberg has always struggled dealing with grounded, genuine human emotion and interaction, and so it is in Ready Player One, but he is aided in that dilemma by two charismatic and compelling performances from his leading actors, Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke. Both Sheridan and Cooke make lemonade out of the lemon of a script they are given that in the hands of lesser actors would have been disastrous. 

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TJ Miller and Mark Rylance both give quirky and interesting performances that I thoroughly enjoyed. Miller is an acquitted taste as an actor but I confess I have acquired it. Rylance is his usual, odd, enigmatic and intriguing self as James Halliday, the creator of The Oasis, and the film is better for it. Both actors are able to elevate the rather mundane material they are given. 

On the down side, Ben Mendelsohn plays corporate bad guy Nolan Sorrento and he never quite musters the focused energy and gravitas needed to play such a pivotal villain. Lena Waithe, Phillip Zhao and Win Morisaki are all pretty underwhelming as well in supporting roles that feel terribly under written and reek of tokenism. 

Another issue I had was that there are some scenes that are "flashbacks" but they use the same actors to play themselves younger and it doesn't work at all. The actors all look like old people dressed differently and pretending to be younger. For a film that is so heavily invested in technology, the inability to perfect the age in flashbacks is embarrassing. I know it is a hard thing to do, but it isn't like Spielberg doesn't have the money to get it right, an example of getting it right being Robert Downey Jr. in the "flashback" sequence in Captain America: Civil War

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And one final issue I had with the movie was that Spielberg uses a Stanley Kubrick film as a narrative device (So as not to spoil it I won't name which one). This is not a crime in and of itself, but when Spielberg "Spielberg-izes" Kubrick's work, like he did with the irritatingly inept A.I., he always ruins it. Spielberg does the same thing to Kubrick in Ready Player One, where he takes a great idea, tinkers with it, turns it into a theme-park ride, and instead of Kubrickian filet mignon all we are left with is a very fragrant Spielbergian shit sandwich. I found this sequence to be so very frustrating because all of the pieces were in place for a stunning and extremely clever cinematic success if Spielberg hadn't screwed it all up. 

But with all that said, as someone who is generally less than enamored with Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker, to his credit, my very low expectations going in to Ready Player One were exceeded. Ready Player One is not a great movie but it held my attention and entertained me for two hours and twenty minutes, and that ain't nothing.

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In conclusion, even though I find the very deep seeded spiritual, political, psychological and mythological message that underlies this entire film (and the majority of Spielberg's work) to be equally vacuous, insidious, nefarious and mendacious, I very tentatively admit that I was mildly entertained by it all. I think if you grew up in the 80's and a vapid, nostalgia laced Spielberg action movie intrigues you, then you should go see Ready Player One in the theaters, as it should be experienced on the big screen.

But be forewarned, as I found out the hard way, a nostalgic "Jump" to the past doesn't just conjure up pleasant memories, but can open old wounds as well. Ready Player One inadvertently opened up an existential wound in me that the movie and its filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, were metaphysically incapable of comprehending, never mind healing. This is why, unlike master filmmakers like Kubrick, Malick, Scorsese, P.T. Anderson and Kurosawa, Spielberg can only ever aspire to be a creature of style over substance and a purveyor of pop culture, as he is wholly incapable of ever being a transcendent artist due to the fact that he makes movies that give easy answers, but that never dare to ask the real question. 

©2018

 

The Pentagon and Hollywood's Successful and Deadly Propaganda Alliance (Extended Edition)

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Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 48 seconds

The Pentagon aids Hollywood in making money, and in turn Hollywood churns out effective propaganda for the brutal American war machine.

The U.S. has the largest military budget in the world, spending over $611 billion, far larger than any other nation on earth. The U.S. military also has at their disposal the most successful propaganda apparatus the world has ever known…Hollywood.

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Since their collaboration on the first Best Picture winner Wings in 1927, the U.S. military has used Hollywood to manufacture and shape its public image in over 1,800 films and TV shows, and Hollywood has, in turn, used military hardware in their films and TV shows to make gobs and gobs of money. A plethora of movies like Lone Survivor, Captain Philips, and even blockbuster franchises like Transformers and Marvel, DC and X-Men super hero movies, have over the years agreed to cede creative control in exchange for use of U.S. military hardware.

In order to obtain cooperation from the Department of Defense (DOD), producers must sign contracts - Production Assistance Agreements - that guarantee a military approved version of the script makes it to the big screen. In return for signing away creative control, Hollywood producers save tens of millions of dollars from their budgets on military equipment, service members to operate the equipment, and expensive location fees.

Capt. Russell Coons, Director of Navy Office of Information West, told Al Jazeera what the military expects for their cooperation,

“We’re not going to support a program that disgraces a uniform or presents us in a compromising way.”

Phil Strub, the DOD chief Hollywood liaison, says the guidelines are clear,

“If the filmmakers are willing to negotiate with us to resolve our script concerns, usually we’ll reach an agreement. If not, filmmakers are free to press on without military assistance.”

In other words, the Department of Defense is using taxpayer money to pick favorites. The DOD has no interest in nuance, truth or, God-forbid, artistic expression, only in insidious jingoism that manipulates public opinion to their favor. This is chilling when you consider that the DOD is able to use its financial leverage to quash dissenting films it deems insufficiently pro-military or pro-American in any way.

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The danger of the DOD-Hollywood alliance is that Hollywood is incredibly skilled at making entertaining, pro-war propaganda. The DOD isn’t getting involved in films like Iron Man, X-Men, Transformers or Jurassic Park III for fun, they are doing so because it’s an effective way to psychologically program Americans, particularly young Americans, not just to adore the military, but to worship militarism. This ingrained love of militarism has devastating real-world effects.

 

Lawrence Suid, author of “Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film” told Al Jazeera,

“I was teaching the history of the Vietnam War, and I couldn’t explain how we got into Vietnam. I could give the facts, the dates, but I couldn’t explain why. And when I was getting my film degrees it suddenly occurred to me that the people in the U.S. had never seen the U.S. lose a war, and when President Johnson said we can go into Vietnam and win, they believed him because they’d seen 50 years of war movies that were positive.”

As Mr. Suid points out, generations of Americans had been raised watching John Wayne valiantly storm the beaches of Normandy in films like The Longest Day, and thus were primed to be easily manipulated into supporting any U.S. military adventure because they were conditioned to believe that the U.S. is always the benevolent hero and inoculated against doubt.

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This indoctrinated adoration of a belligerent militarism, conjured by Hollywood blockbusters, also resulted in Americans being willfully misled into supporting a farce like the 2003 Iraq war. The psychological conditioning for Iraq War support was built upon hugely successful films like Saving Private Ryan (1997), directed by Steven Spielberg, and Black Hawk Down (2001), produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, that emphasized altruistic American militarism. Spielberg and Bruckheimer are two Hollywood heavyweights, along with Paramount studios, considered by the DOD to be their most reliable collaborators.

Another example of the success of the DOD propaganda program was the pulse-pounding agitprop of the Tom Cruise blockbuster Top Gun (1986).

Top Gun, produced by Bruckheimer, was a turning point in the DOD-Hollywood relationship, as it came amidst a string of artistically successful, DOD-opposed, “anti-war” films, like Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, which gave voice to America’s post-Vietnam crisis of confidence. Top Gun was the visual representation of Reagan’s flag-waving optimism, and was the Cold War cinematic antidote to the “Vietnam Syndrome”.

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Top Gun, which could not have been made without massive assistance from the DOD, was a slick two-hour recruiting commercial that coincided with a major leap in public approval ratings for the military. With a nadir of 50% in 1980, by the time the Gulf War started in 1991, public support for the military spiked to 85%.

Since Top Gun, the DOD propaganda machine has resulted in a current public approval for the military of 72%, with Congress at 12%, the media at 24% and even Churches at only 40%, the military is far and away the most popular institution in American life. Other institutions would no doubt have better approval ratings if they too could manage and control their image in the public sphere.

It isn’t just the DOD that uses the formidable Hollywood propaganda apparatus to its own end…the CIA does as well, working with films to enhance their reputation and distort history.

For example, as the War on Terror raged, the CIA deftly used Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) as a disinformation vehicle to revise their sordid history with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and to portray them-selves as heroic and not nefarious.

The CIA also surreptitiously aided the film Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and used it as a propaganda tool to alter history and to convince Americans that torture works.

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The case for torture presented in Zero Dark Thirty was originally made from 2001 to 2010 on the hit TV show 24, which had support from the CIA as well. That pro-CIA and pro-torture narrative continued in 2011 with the Emmy-winning show Homeland, created by the same producers as 24, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa.

 

A huge CIA-Hollywood success story was Best Picture winner Argo (2012), which ironically is the story of the CIA teaming up with Hollywood. The CIA collaborated with the makers of Argo, including alleged liberal Ben Affleck, in order to pervert the historical record and elevate their image.

The CIA being involved in manipulating the American public should come as no surprise, as they have always had their fingers in the propagandizing of the American people, even in the news media with Operation Mockingbird that used/uses CIA assets in newsrooms to control narratives. 

Just like the DOD-Hollywood propaganda machine has real-world consequences in the form of war, the CIA-Hollywood teaming has tangible results as well. 

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For example, in our current culture, the sins of the Intelligence community, from vast illegal surveillance to rendition to torture, are intentionally lost down the memory hole. People like former CIA director John Brennan, a torture supporter who spied on the U.S. Senate in order to undermine the torture investigation, or former head of the NSA James Clapper, who committed perjury when he lied to congress about warrantless surveillance, or former Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden, who lied about and supported both surveillance and torture, are all held up by the liberal media, like MSNBC and even allegedly anti-authoritarian comedians like John Oliver and Bill Maher, as brave and honorable men who should be thanked for their noble service. 

The fact that this propaganda devil’s bargain between the DOD/CIA and Hollywood takes place in the self-declared Greatest Democracy on Earth™ is an irony seemingly lost on those in power who benefit from it, and also among those targeted to be indoctrinated by it, entertainment consumers, who are for the most part entirely oblivious to it.

If America is the Greatest Democracy in the World™ why are its military and intelligence agencies so intent on covertly misleading its citizens, stifling artistic dissent and obfuscating the truth? The answer is obvious…because in order to convince Americans that their country is The Greatest Democracy on Earth™, they must be misled, artistic dissent must be stifled and the truth must be obfuscated.

In the wake of the American defeat in the Vietnam war, cinema flourished by introspectively investigating the deeper uncomfortable truths of that fiasco in Oscar nominated films like Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July, all made without assistance from the DOD.

The stultifying bureaucracy of America’s jingoistic military agitprop machine is now becoming more successful at suffocating artistic endeavors in their crib though. With filmmaking becoming ever more corporatized, it is an uphill battle for directors to maintain their artistic integrity in the face of cost-cutting budgetary concerns from studios.

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In contrast to post-Vietnam cinema, after the unmitigated disaster of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the continuing quagmire in Afghanistan, there has been no cinematic renaissance, only a steady diet of mendaciously patriotic, DOD-approved, pro-war drivel like American Sniper and Lone Survivor. Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker (2008), shot with no assistance from the DOD, was the lone exception that successfully dared to portray some of the ugly truths of America’s Mesopotamian misadventure.

President Eisenhower once warned Americans to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.”

Eisenhower’s prescient warning should have extended to the military industrial entertainment complex of the DOD/CIA- Hollywood alliance, which has succeeded in turning Americans into a group of uniformly incurious and militaristic zealots.

America is now stuck in a perpetual pro-war propaganda cycle, where the DOD/CIA and Hollywood conspire to indoctrinate Americans to be warmongers, and in turn, Americans now demand more militarism from their entertainment and government to satiate their bloodlust.

The DOD/CIA - Hollywood propaganda alliance guarantees Americans will blindly support more future failed wars and will be willing accomplices in the deaths of millions more people across the globe.

A version of this article was originally published on March 12, 2018 are RT.

©2018

The Post: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. No need to see this film except for the wonderful performance of Meryl Streep, so maybe catch it on Netflix or cable if you are so inclined.

The Post, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer and directed by Steven Spielberg, is the story of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee, the publisher and editor of the Washington Post respectively, as they guide the newspaper through the Pentagon Papers controversy. The film stars Meryl Streep as Graham and Tom Hanks as Bradlee. 

In case you aren't aware, The Post is one of Spielberg's "serious" movies, which the Spielberg-worshipping Amen chorus in the media tells us means that it should only be spoken about in the most hushed and reverent tones. The Post has been self-consciously selling itself as being very "timely" because it is allegedly a story about freedom of the press in the face of tyranny. The film is obviously meant as a nobly defiant gesture in the face of Fuhrer Trump, who goes unmentioned in the film but is an ever ominous presence lurking beneath the movie's surface, sort of like the Great White shark that terrorized one of Speilberg's actually good films, Jaws

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Speilberg made The Post not only after Trump became president, but because he became president. The film was hurried into production in June of 2017 in order to strike while the anti-Trump iron was hot in an attempt to convert Trump hate into dollars and awards. The political problem for The Post is that it comes across as entirely, overwhelmingly and painfully reactionary. Being reactionary is not a crime in and of itself, but the mark of a great artist is that they are ahead of the curve. The true artist dances between their individual consciousness and the collective unconscious and are able to sense things they can only articulate and express artistically (even when they may not be intellectually or "consciously" aware of them) before they come to the surface in the wider collective consciousness. With The Post, Speilberg's reactionism feels like merely a symptom of the disease of artistic fraudulence and bankruptcy, which is a malady from which he has long suffered. The film is also a result of his shameless and clumsy attempt to be politically relevant in order to be further admired by those in the political and media establishment.

The truth is I saw The Post over a month ago and was so underwhelmed by it on every single level I haven't been able to muster the creative energy to review it until now. The film is a stale and suffocatingly conventional piece of predictable moviemaking that feels as if a propaganda unit for the Hillary Clinton campaign made an after school special that was a sequel to their smash hit "Love Trumps Hate"…or as America heard it, "Love Trump's Hate".

On the most basic level, The Post is an extraordinarily poorly structured cinematic venture and is so numbingly bland as to be unremarkable in every single way. The Post is just one more bit of incontrovertible evidence that Spielberg is simply not that great at making "serious" movies, and that he needs aliens or dinosaurs at the heart of his story in order to be proficient at his craft.

In The Post, just like in his other "serious" films Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, Spielberg seems completely unaware of how to create a cohesive and palatable narrative rhythm to a film. As with many of his previous "serious" films, Spielberg chooses to encase The Post in the most useless and clumsy preamble and coda, which renders any sort of dramatic tension or revelations that can be scrounged up in between them entirely moot and ineffective.

There are some sequences in The Post that are so cinematically inept, amateurish and heavy-handed it is difficult to not laugh out loud at them. Of all of the cringe-worthy scenes scattered throughout, none makes the colon twinge quite so much as the scene where Streep's Katherine Graham exits the Supreme Court to a soaring soundtrack amidst a sea of young, bright eyed women who part for her like the Red Sea and then gaze with awe and astonishment upon her as if she were the Goddess coming down from the heavens victorious at having slain the patriarchal dragon. This scene is so awful it actually made me unintentionally groan aloud in the theatre. There are also some ridiculous scenes of Nixon in silhouette at the White House that are the absolute height of unintentional comedy.  

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Meryl Streep stars in the film as Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, a woman trying to make her way in a man's world. Streep is simply the very best at her craft that we have seen and her work in The Post is testament to that. With a flaccid script, she is able to turn Katherine Graham into an honest to goodness, multi-dimensional human being, the only one in the entire film. Streep's Graham never rings false, which is an accomplishment of Herculean proportions on the part of the Grand Dame, due to the emotionally and intellectually infantile script from which she has to work. 

Tom Hanks co-stars as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Hanks has proven himself over the years to be a decent movie star but at the end of the day he turns out to be a pretty shitty actor. Hanks's shallow portrayal of Bradlee, with his spray on tan and affected grumble of a voice, would be better suited in an SNL sketch than in a feature film. Seeing Hanks on screen opposite Streep is very illuminating, as Hanks is exposed as being a smoke and mirrors huckster of a performer, and Streep is revealed to be the consummate actor.

The narrative of The Post is meant to cover as many politically correct bases as possible. There is the story of the tyrannical president and the noble press fighting for American ideals and freedoms. There is also the story of female empowerment where a woman must overcome the horrors of the patriarchy that conspires to keep her down. With all of the shamelessly, not-so-subtle Hillary love and admiration for the mainstream press imprinted in the DNA of The Post, a more apt title for it may have been "The Establishment Strikes Back".

One of the things that bothered me about The Post, even more than the sub-par storytelling and ham-fisted directing, is why tell this particular version of the story in the first place? The Pentagon Papers is an important story, of that there is no doubt. Daniel Ellsberg is an important story and The New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers in an important story, but Spielberg doesn't tell any of those stories. Instead, he tells the story of the Washington Post's part in the Pentagon Papers, and that probably isn't even in the top ten of stories surrounding the Pentagon Papers that should or need to be told. 

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The trick that Spielberg manages to pull off in his version of the Pentagon Papers is he manages to smear Daniel Ellsberg and belittles and demeans what he risked and accomplished in exposing the Pentagon Papers. It is remarkable that Spielberg could make a movie about the Pentagon Papers, one of the biggest whistleblowers stories in U.S. history, and yet completely diminishes and disrespects that whistleblower. Spielberg turns Ellsberg into a long-haired, hippie malcontent and narcissist driven solely by his self-aggrandizing instinct and ego. This would not be such a big deal except that it is entirely at odds with the reality of who Daniel Ellsberg truly is and what he did. 

The other thing that bothers me are the lies of omission committed by The Post. Ben Bradlee is portrayed as not only a truth teller in the face of power, but also the quintessential journalist who was a thoughtful and passionate man who cared deeply for his profession. The reality is that Bradlee was the consummate Washington insider and his tentacles were everywhere in The Swamp. It is shown in the film that Bradlee was a friend of JFK and a frequent guest at the White House for private dinners with JFK and occasionally Jackie, which is true. What the film doesn't dare mention is that Bradlee was married to wealthy socialite Toni Pinchot during Kennedy's presidency. Toni's sister was Mary Pinchot Meyer, a divorcee who was having an affair with JFK during his presidency and would frequently go to the White House with Ben Bradlee and Toni in order for them to cover for her and JFK's affair. Also of note is that Mary Pinchot Meyer wasn't just any divorcee, she was divorced from Cord Meyer, a powerful CIA official who was Head of the Covert Action Staff of the Directorate of Plans during Kennedy's administration, and also became the principle operative of Operation Mockingbird, which was a massive operation that was used to secretly influence U.S. and foreign media. 

Another bit of info kept out of The Post about Bradlee is this, that almost one year after Kennedy was assassinated, on October 12, 1964, Mary Pinchot Meyer was assassinated, gunned down in broad daylight, while walking along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath near her Georgetown home. Why is this important? Well, it is important because Mary Meyer had kept a very thorough diary of her time with JFK, which included not only the usual Kennedy sexcapades, but JFK's use of both marijuana and LSD. To make the Meyer case all the more intriguing, Mary Meyer was convinced that JFK was murdered by a conspiracy involving U.S. intelligence agencies, of which she was intimately familiar, and she was determined to bring it to light.

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After she was murdered some very strange things occurred, the first of which is that someone in the CIA called Ben Bradlee on the day of the shooting to tell him of Mary's murder. Why is this strange? Because Mary Pinchot Meyer was still lying in the morgue and had not even been identified by the coroners office, she was just a Jane Doe. Mary's family didn't even know anything had happened to her at this point, but because of a mysterious source in the CIA, Ben Bradlee did. Bradlee then went to Mary's house and scoured the pace and found her JFK diary and instead of doing the journalistically honorable thing of reporting on it, he instead kept it secret and turned it over to none other than James Jesus Angelton who destroyed it. Who is James Jesus Angelton? Well, James Angelton was just the Chief of Covert Counter-Intelligence Operations for the CIA. 

To make the Meyer story all the more intriguing is what happened when Bradlee was called to testify in the 1965 murder trial against a young Black man charged, and later acquitted, of the crime of killing Mary Meyer. On the stand Bradlee lied, in other words committed perjury, when he failed to mention his interaction with Mr. Angelton of the CIA and about the existence of Mary's diary. How do we know he lied? Because years later when he wrote his 1995 memoir, A Good Life, he told the truth about what actually happened and how he conspired with Angelton to find and destroy Mary's diary. 

Bradlee's back story is pretty remarkable, but so is Katherine Graham's. Graham's husband, Phil, was the publisher and co-owner of the Washington Post. In late 1962, Phil was having an affair with a young woman from Australia and told Katherine about it. A short time later in 1963, Phil got himself into a boat load of trouble when he got stinking drunk at a newspaper publisher's convention in Phoenix and stood up and told a room full of reporters that President Kennedy was having an affair in the White House with...you guessed it…Mary Pinchot Meyer. Mrs. Graham was alerted to her soon to be ex-husbands behavior and flew out to Phoenix with their doctor and Phil was sedated, put in a straitjacket, and flown to Washington where he was quickly hospitalized at Chestnut Lodge, a hospital in Maryland well-known to be used by the CIA for various unsavory psychiatric activities. 

After his initial release five days later from Chestnut Lodge, Phil left Katherine and told friends he was going to divorce her, take sole control of the Post, and quickly remarry with his Australian girlfriend. Shortly thereafter, in June of 1963, Phil was again placed in Chestnut Lodge and treated for "manic depression". Chestnut Lodge then released him in early August 1963 to his ex-wife Katherine's custody for a weekend break because she claimed he seemed to be doing much better. Phil stayed with Katherine at their Virginia farmhouse, and that is where he allegedly shot himself with shotgun. Against the wishes of Phil's will, which Katherine challenged, Katherine Graham then inherited the Washington Post which became a powerful mouthpiece for the intelligence community on all matters.

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Ben Bradlee was also a key part of the intelligence community's control over the Post and of American political discourse. The best way to describe Bradlee is that for the duration of his Washington Post career, he was a useful asset to the intelligence community. Katherine Graham was less an asset and more of an insurance policy for the intelligence community. They got her power over the Post, and she gave them access and unquestioned loyalty. Remember the previously Operation Mockingbird, well the Washington Post is the flagship newspaper for Operation Mockingbird, and remember who ran Operation Mockingbird…none other than Cord Meyer, Mary Meyer's ex-husband. (If you want to read more about the very tangled and incredibly fascinating story of Mary Meyer, JFK, Cord Meyer, James Angleton, Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham, I wholly encourage you to go read Mary's Mosaic by Peter Janney, it is a page-turner well worth your time if you have the interest.)

Now, don't those stories sound much more interesting and dramatically charged than the limp, third-rate Washington Post - Pentagon Papers nonsense that Spielberg conjures in The Post? Wouldn't those backstories make for at least a modicum of intrigue and drama when trying to fully flesh out who these dramatis personae really are and what actually happened at the Washington Post during the Pentagon papers incident? 

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But Steven Spielberg has no interest in telling that kind of truth in his movies, he is only interested in telling a certain kind of truth, the same kind of truth that Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham are interested in telling, namely...the manufactured, "safe" truth. If you look at the length and breadth of Spielberg and Hanks' career you notice something very troubling, they are both only interested in telling that sort of manufactured "safe" truth. Hanks and Spielberg are anything but artistic truth-tellers, they are Rockwellian myth-makers and star-spangled Riefenstahls who consistently and exclusively pump out agitprop for the Establishment and American Empire. I realize that I will be tarred and feathered as a tin-foil hat wearing kook for saying this, but it doesn't take a genius or a madman to figure out that upon closer inspection, Hanks and Spielberg are just like Bradlee and Graham, they are well positioned assets useful in disseminating disinformation propaganda for the American Intelligence community (and maybe some other nations Intelligence communities as well) in order to subtly indoctrinate the gullible and unaware masses.

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Bradlee and Graham were so well positioned to be assets for Operation Mockingbird one cannot help but wonder if they were "assisted" in their rise to such pivotal and prominent roles on the American political stage…and the same can be said of Hanks and Spielberg, who have proven time and again that they seem to have risen to heights in Hollywood well beyond their artistic abilities and use their positions of power to inundate the public with most insidious of propaganda. (For further reading on Hanks desire to alter history to appease the American Intelligence community, check out James DiEugenio's book Reclaiming Parkland, it is not a particularly well-written work, but it is does contain some fascinating and insightful information.)

When you look at the question I posed earlier about why Spielberg would make THIS film about the Pentagon Papers instead of investigating other more potentially interesting angles of that story (Ellsberg bio-pic, NY Times angle etc.), through the prism of his job as a propagandist for the Establishment and the intelligence community, then The Post makes a helluva lot more sense.  

Spielberg could not make a film with Ellsberg as a hero because Ellsberg is a whistleblower and whistleblowers cannot be perceived as heroic especially in this day and age because they could potentially reveal the crimes of American empire and the intelligence community. Hanks and Spielberg both said as much in doing interviews regarding The Post. When asked if Ellsberg was a hero they both said, "yeah sure", but when asked if Snowden was a hero, they both declined to answer and said it "was complicated". It isn't complicated, it is only complicated if you are a propagandist interested in obscuring truth, not exposing it. The reason they can sort of say Ellsberg is ok is because his revelations are ancient history with no impact on today's world, whereas Snowden is making a brave Ellsbergian stand today, and to make things worse in Hanks and Spielberg's eyes, Snowden did so while Obama was president. 

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Think of it this way, Spielberg can make any movie he wants, but he chose the safest route imaginable and made The Post. He could've made a Snowden movie, or a Chelsea Manning movie, both of which would tell the truth to power story and even the freedom of the press story that The Post pretends to tell. He could've made a film about John Kiriakou which would be immensely more interesting than The Post, but he didn't. Spielberg could've still played it safe and made a straight up, paint-by-numbers Ellsberg bio-pic…but he didn't. Hell, Spielberg could've made a Trump bio-pic, Oliver Stone made one of George W. Bush while he was still in office for goodness sake, but he would never do something so ballsy. Instead, Spielberg made the impotent and insipid The Post, with all of its narrative quirks, historical omissions and sub-textual dishonesty.

What I found even more damning than the shitty filmmaking and predictable script on display in The Post, was the audience with whom I watched it. The screening I attended was pretty crowded and at various times throughout the showing, the crowd whooped and cheered for the "good guys" (Hanks and company), and when the film ended there was a rapturous round of applause. I can easily surmise that none of these cheering people voted for Donald Trump, and that they felt their cheering was a brave and courageous act of "resistance".

What all the cheering from the audience proved to me is that this anti-Trump audience deserves that know-nothing buffoon as their president, because just like him they are dim-witted ignorami who only want to be told what they want to hear and are incurious, ill-informed and easily manipulated.  

These cheering ninnies are blissfully unaware of Ben Bradlee's connection to the intelligence community or his duplicitous relationship with JFK's affairs and Mary Meyer's murder. They are also blissfully unaware of Katherine Graham's equally nefarious connections to the intelligence community and the mystery surrounding her husbands downfall and supposed suicide and her subsequent rise to power at the Washington Post. These same simpletons probably confuse Snowden with Assange, and recoil at the truthful and accurate revelations of those two men and Chelsea Manning, but ignorantly cheer the charade of The Post as a metaphor for speaking truth to power and the battle for the freedom of the press today, just because Spielberg tells them to. These fools are Spielberg's bread and butter, for they are the worst kind of fools, they think they are savvy, well-informed, serious people, but they are simply dupes and dopes, and these vacuous, vapid and vacant numskulls have gotten the country, the president and the movie they so richly deserve. 

In conclusion, The Post is certainly not worth paying to see in the theatre. If you stumble across it on cable or Netlfix you can watch it to see Streep's marvelous performance but that is about it. The Post is fools gold for those looking for powerful stories of the struggle for freedom of the press and speaking truth to power. Viewers would be much better served avoiding the historical revisionism of The Post and seeking out the stories of Edward Snowden (the documentary Citizenfour or Oliver Stone's flawed Snowden), Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, Daniel Ellsberg (the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America) and yes, even the much-maligned Julian Assange, if they want to understand the current fight for freedom of the press and the battle against tyranny, where information and the truth are the greatest weapons of war.

©2017

Knight of Cups : A Review and Dispatches From the Great Malick Civil War

***THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!***

ESTIMATED READING TIME : 14 MINUTES

MY RATING: 4.75 out of 5 STARS - SEE IT IN THE THEATRE

*** REVIEW SUMMARY***: If you like Terrence Malick films you will really like Knight of Cups. As the third film in Malick's undeclared autobiographical trilogy, with The Tree of Life and To the Wonder being the first two films, it is much more accessible than To the Wonder and ever so slightly less accessible than The Tree of Life. Be forewarned, if your tastes run more conventional and mainstream, Knight of Cups, and any other Malick film for that matter, will not be for you.

Once the soul was perfect and had wings, and could soar into Heavenfind your way from darkness to light. Remember.

In 2011, I went to see the film The Tree of Life written and directed by Terence Malick. I was deeply moved by the film and genuinely loved it. The greatest attempt at describing my feelings for the film would be to say it was the film that I had unknowingly been waiting for my entire life.  Considering I am very reticent to engage in hyperbole in regards to any film (or any-thing for that matter), this was high praise indeed. 

When I was asked by people if I liked the film, I shared with them that same glowing endorsement, and I was received in one of two ways, either people warmly embraced me as a fellow traveler and soul-mate on this incredible journey of life, or I was assaulted like a stranger in a strange land with a level of vitriol unprecedented in the long, troubled history of mankind. 

It was clear, the battle lines had been drawn, pro-Malick people on one side, anti-Malick people on the other. The people who disliked The Tree of Life, REALLY, REALLY HATED it, and the people who liked the film, REALLY, REALLY LOVED it. The anti-Tree of Lifers said the film was incoherent, rambling and pretentious, while the pro-Tree of Lifers said it was intimate, personal and visionary. I wasn't entirely shocked by the negative reaction to the film by some people, during the showing I went to, three different audience members, at different times, got up and turned to face the rest of the crowd and held their arms out wide as if to say "what in the hell is this?" and then made a spectacle of themselves as they stormed out of the theatre in a loud huff, making sure everyone knew how much they hated the film.  And thus, with these 'walk-outs', the first shots in "The Great Malick Civil War", which had been simmering for decades, were fired, and the horrible, bloody war rages on to this day with Malick's latest release Knight of Cups.

At the conclusion of the showing of Knight of Cups (which is written and directed by Terrence Malick, stars Christian Bale, and is shot by Emmanuel Lubezki) which I attended, two blue-haried old biddies sitting near the front of the sparsely filled theatre made a show of dismissively laughing loudly the moment credits rolled. This was followed by an older man, sitting by himself on the other side of my row, who cupped his hands by his mouth and booed loudly, vomiting his negative opinion over every one in the theatre. My instinct was to walk over and pour my root beer over this geezer's head, and tell him that since he felt the need to share his feelings with me, I thought I'd share my feelings with him. Thankfully my better nature prevailed, or I might be writing this post on the lam, wanted for the murder, justifiable in my eyes, of three old people in a Los Angeles theatre. When it comes to this Great Malick Civil War, I am trying, God knows, to follow John Lennon's example of "giving peace a chance."

The Malick Civil War is one of those wars to which we've become so accustomed, the type of war which no one can win and which will last until the end of history. I can't end the war myself but I can try to help you understand it, it's origins and how to survive it, so that you can tell your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren about how we got into this senseless slaughter we know as "The Great Malick Civil War", with the hope that those future generations can bring an end to the carnage.

FOUR SCORE AND SEVEN MOVIES AGO

The Abraham Lincoln at the center of this civil war is enigmatic writer/director Terence Malick. Malick has directed and written seven feature films, which are, in chronological order, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), The Tree of Life (2011), To the Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2016). In keeping with his somewhat eccentric image, after his second feature, Days of Heaven, Malick disappeared from movie-making and public life, only to resurface twenty years later with the film The Thin Red Line. Malick is a unique man, unlike most other directors, as evidenced by his rarely doing any press or interviews for his films, and not even allowing himself be photographed on the set of his movies.

Malick's last three films, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, which seem to form a sort of personal and autobiographical trilogy, are films that are particularly challenging for some viewers, and down right off-putting to others. The biggest complaint about The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups is the main complaint about many of Malick's films, namely people don't understand what the hell is happening in the story. In a Malick film, the narrative can be, at times, non-linear. Malick's films are like dreams...impressionistic, abstract and filled with symbolism.

"GIVE ME SIX HOURS TO CHOP DOWN A TREE AND I WILL SPEND THE FIRST FOUR SHARPENING THE AXE." - ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Unlike most other other filmmakers, Malick likes to shift perspective in his films. We often hear, in voice over, the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters throughout his films. It is a technique very similar in story telling structure to a novel or even a long form poem, and when done well, as it is in Malick's case, it helps create an intimacy and personal connection between the audience and the character.

Malick heightens this effect by often having these voice-overs be done in a barely audible whisper. Examples of this multiple-protagonist-narration technique can be found in The Thin Red Line, where the narration comes from as many as five characters, Private Witt, Sgt. Welsh, Captain Staros, Private Bell and Lt. Col. Tall, and the perspective jumps across multiple story lines, so we see the overarching narrative through these different protagonists perspectives, giving the film a depth and complexity it would otherwise be lacking with a more conventional storytelling technique.

The New World is also narrated by three different characters as well, Captain Smith, Pocahontas and John Rolfe, giving the story a much more well-rounded and deeper personal dimension than a standard filmmaking approach. This love triangle, which is a theme often explored in Malick's films, is brought to greater life and depth by understanding the inner thoughts and workings of all the participants. 

In The Tree of Life, the narration jumps between the mother (Jessica Chastain), the father (Brad Pitt) and the son as both a child (Hunter McCracken) and as an adult (Sean Penn), which gives the film a vibrant and exquisitely powerful intimacy. The use of multiple protagonist's narrations and perspectives is extremely unconventional in filmmaking, hell, just using a single narrator is a technique that many filmmakers vehemently disagree with, never mind using multiple narrators. In the hands of a less visionary director, the voice-over is a bandage used to cover their weak storytelling skill, but with a handful of directors, Malick and Scorsese in particular, voice-over narration is a weapon they wield expertly that elevates their storytelling to glorious heights. 

Malick hasn't always use multiple narrators in his films, for instance in Badlands and Days of Heaven, his first two films, he uses a singular narrator, both young woman/girls, to guide the viewer through the picture. In Badlands, the protagonist is Sissy Spacek's teenage character, Holly, who shows us the story, and her innocence makes the brutality and barbarity of Kit (Martin Sheen) and the other male characters more palatable for the viewer. In Days of Heaven, a young girl, Linda (Linda Manz), narrates the story of Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) as they make their way from Chicago to the plains of the Midwest. This technique gives the viewer a distance from the main protagonists, but maintains Malick's signature intimacy (and the theme of femininity), in this case, through the eyes of an innocent child. As Malick has matured and found his voice and style as an artist and filmmaker, he has become more deft at the use of the multiple protagonists and narrations, and has used it to great effect in his last five films to give the viewer more complex perspectives.

"I WALK SLOWLY, BUT I NEVER WALK BACKWARDS" - ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Malick also has a distinct and unique visual style where he only uses natural lighting. In addition to the natural lighting, Malick also highlights this naturalism with his camera movement by letting the camera dance and float about. He sometimes let's the camera stop to focus on the wonders of the natural world and setting, holding on an animal, an insect or a tree. Malick never rushes his camera, and his deliberate pace and natural lighting, free moving camera and occasional focus on nature, all create a signature style that has a tangible and palpable feel to it. You don't just see through Malick's camera, you feel the world it inhabits. Whether it is the minuscule bumps on a soldiers helmet, the abrasive blades of grass in a field, the texture of a character's sweater, through Malick's use of natural light, these objects have greater definition and every contour of them is accentuated, giving the viewer the sense memory of similar items they have felt in their own lives. It is a remarkable accomplishment for Malick to be able to bring his visuals to such a heightened  and naturalistic state that viewers not only bask in their beauty but recall their own tactile memories.

There is a sequence in Knight of Cups where Christian Bale wears a bulky, wool sweater, and Cate Blanchett simply reaches out towards him and feels it. Malick's camera, with the guidance of one of the great cinematographers working today, Emmaneul Lubezki, picks up every single nook and cranny of this sweater, it is palpable on screen, and when Blanchett reaches out for it you feel that sweater right along with her, and also feel her character's longing to connect with Bale.

"I DESTROY MY ENEMIES WHEN I MAKE THEM MY FRIENDS." - ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Which brings us to acting in a Malick film. Of the many people with whom I have disagreed about Terrence Malick films, many of them are actors. A lot of actors I spoke with about The Tree of Life, absolutely hated the movie. I was shocked by this revelation as I would have assumed actors were a bit more cinematically sophisticated than the average Joe, but boy was I wrong. Actors may actually be even more culturally conditioned in their movie watching because they are so used to reading scripts and understanding the basics of how to tell a story. This does not suit the viewer of a Malick film, in fact it is poison.

Malick is very improvisational with his actors and his camera, which scares the living hell out of most actors. A lot of actors want to know what to do and when to do it. Being left out in front of a camera with no context and nothing to do but simply "be", is a form of torture for most actors. In addition, because Malick is able to bring us so intensely close to his subjects and into their internal world, the opportunities for a big external clash with the outer world are reduced. The brushes with the external are quickly integrated into the internal, so we don't have the explosive confrontation that actors love to embrace. Since Malick uses voice over so often, actors aren't allowed to talk their way through something, which a lot of actors desperately love to do. The actors are forced to be present in the moment and just "be alive" before the cameras. It is very improvisational and in some ways like watching an unrehearsed dance...kind of like…I don't know...life. Some actors hate it when they don't know what to do...am I mad here? Am I sad? Do I laugh? Do I cry? No, you just are here...alive and human. Once an actor can get comfortable with the "not knowing" of Malick's approach, then Malick can fill in the proper meaning and purpose he intends through voice over and editing.

Malick's style of filmmaking lays an actor bare. You can't bullshit, or rely on your good looks to charm your way through a Malick film. You need talent, skill and frankly, intelligence and gravitas to be able to thrive in a Malick film. There have been some extraordinary performances in Malick films, for instance, Cate Blanchett in Knight of Cups does simple yet stellar work, bringing her great craft to bear in a role that would have been invisible in the hands of a lesser actress. 

Blanchett being great is no surprise as she is one of the world's finest actresses, but Malick has been able to get great performances from some less expected places. In To the Wonder, Olga Kurylenko, who had previously been in little more than action films, gives a wondrous performance. Kurylenko, whose background is in dance and for whom English is a third language, is comfortable expressing herself through her body and movement, which means she is never stuck trying to figure out a scene, but rather is capable if just inhabiting it, a great quality for an actor to possess in a Malick film. Another surprising performance in a Malick film is Colin Farrell in The New World. Farrell's naturalism and tangible fear in front of Malick's camera made for a mesmerizing and unexpected  performance from the often-time uneven actor.

Other actors who have thrived in Malick films are Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands, with Sheen giving a Brando-esque level performance filled with charisma and power. Nick Nolte, Jim Cavezial, Sean Penn, Ben Chaplin and Elias Koteas all do very solid work in The Thin Red Line. Koteas and Nolte in particular do spectacularly specific work in very difficult roles. The aforementioned Colin Farrell, Christian Bale and Q'oriana Kilcher in The New World. Kilcher is simply amazing as Pocahontes, completely natural, charismatic and at ease as Malick's Native American muse. Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain all give detailed and vibrant performances in The Tree of Life, with Chastain really being the break out star. Chastain, like Blanchett, is one of the great actresses working today, and her work in The Tree of Life was so masterful and elegantly human that she was immediately catapulted into the upper echelon of highly respected actors.

Conversely, there have been actors who have been exposed in Malick films as being little more than a pretty face with an empty head. Richard Gere simply lacked the gravitas to carry Days of Heaven and the film suffered greatly for it. Gere was just unable too fill the screen and maintain the viewers interest mostly due to a lack of focus and grounding. Along the same lines, Ben Affleck is really dreadful in To the Wonder. Affleck was revealed to be a dullard with absolutely nothing going on behind the eyes. He is obviously a handsome guy, but he is unable to express much with his face, leaving him being awkward and uncomfortable in front of Malick's camera without anything to do but just be. Simliarly, Rachel McAdams also struggled mightily in To the Wonder, as both actors seemed lost and wandering throughout their screen time, especially in comparison to Olga Kurylenko's transcendent performance. 

The ability to be able to communicate non-verbally is paramount for an actor in a Malick film, which is why highly skilled actors, like Chastain, Blanchett, Penn and Sheen were able to shine, as were relative novices like Kilcher and Kurylenko who are grounded and comfortable in their bodies. 

In Knight of Cups, Christian Bale shows his great craft and skill by being able to carry the narrative of the film without saying a whole lot. He is an often underrated actor, but his work in Knight of Cups is testament to his mastery of craft and innate talent.

"ALL THAT I AM, OR HOPE TO BE, I OWE TO MY ANGEL MOTHER." - ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Malick often returns to the same themes in his films. One theme that runs through all of his films, and is the central focus of Knight of Cups, is the Anima, the feminine. Malick has always had a certain, very specific type of feminine archetype on display in his films. His central female characters have almost always worn flowing, light dresses, mostly in the style of the 1940's or so, and have also frequently gone barefoot, both symbolic of femininity and maternity. This particular female archetype, probably inspired by the director's own mother, is not a damsel in distress, or a vixen or a school marm, it is a femininity of strength and intrigue, like the goddess or the Virgin Mary. At once mystical, mysterious, powerful and enchanting. This archetype is vividly on display in The Tree of Life in the mother character portrayed by Jessica Chastain. The archetype also shows up in fleeting and tantalizing glimpses in The Thin Red Line, as Ben Chaplin's wife (Miranda Otto) who writes him at the front. 

In Knight of Cups, the entire film is an exploration of the Anima, and the director's relationship, in the form of Christian Bale, to her many faces. Even the interaction between male characters is entirely based upon their individual and unique relationship to the Anima. The different faces of the Anima, such as Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, are sign posts along the journey of the main character as his relationship to the feminine changes as he ages and matures.

Other themes running through all of Malick's films are philosophy and spirituality, usually in the form of a Gnostic Catholicism. Malick is one of the rare directors who even considers having characters who think about God in their life in his films. The big questions that Malick tackles, questions of life and death, love and loss, God, nature and the infinite, are almost never found in any other films. Malick is alone out in the wilderness in trying to understand the world in which he lives, both in its external and internal forms, and the universe he inhabits and the God who created it, be he merciful or not, or if he exists or not, and what that all means to the individual making his way in the world. 

In the Knight of Cups this Gnostic Catholicism is a major theme as well. Christian Bale's character is lost amid the decadence and debauchery of a modern day Babylon, and has forgotten his true self and that he is a divine Son of God. The spiritual seeking and struggle on display in Knight of Cups is a common and powerful theme running through all of Malick's films and it is part of what sets him apart from other directors.

HOW TO WATCH A MALICK MOVIE - A PRIMER

Malick's films, especially his later ones and the autobiographical trilogy, are less storytelling as they are meditations. Meditations on God, faith, nature, grace, annihilation, fatherhood, motherhood, childhood, the duality of man, the duality of God, and Malick's cinematic meditation can become meditative for viewers. The key to appreciating Malick's films are to understand that they are not something you actively try to figure out. You don't have to decide if the guy in the red hat is in internal affairs, or if the doctor is really a ghost or the ship's captain is a spy. Watching Malick is, in and of itself, an artistic meditation. A meditation on the internal life of his characters and the character's struggle, as it relates to our own struggle and to our own internal life. Viewers are not consumers of a Malick film, they are participants. The catch being, of course, is that viewers don't participate intellectually with Malick's films, but emotionally and spiritually.

The key to enjoying a Malick film is to stop trying to impose standard storytelling rules upon it, and trying to figure it out consciously. A Malick film is like going to an art exhibit, you don't mentally figure the art out, you just let it wash over you and go for the ride. You trust that the artist/auteur has something to say and that you'll understand it at some point in time. The artist may be working on an unconscious level, beyond the ability of the viewer to articulate how or why the piece moves them. With Malick, it may not even be when the film is over, it may be after you see it a second time, or third time that it resonates with the viewer. Or it may be when an event in the viewer's life changes their perspective and the film then makes more sense to them in retrospect.

Some people may not be ready to hear what Malick is saying. Maybe they have become a prisoner to formula and cultural conditioning. Maybe they've been taught to be a passive consumer and need their films to only be entertainment and can only tolerate their art when it's spoon-fed to them. Maybe Malick's philosophical and theological perspective are off-putting to many viewers who do not share his Catholicism or any belief in God at all. I mean Adam Sandler is a trillionaire and makes a couple of movies a year, and they've made TWO Sex in the City films for God's sake, but poor Terence Malick has only made seven films in the last forty years, so trust me when I tell you that I totally understand if people don't believe in God. The truth is, belief in God is not a requirement to enjoying a Malick film, but belief in art is.

Another requirement to enjoying a Malick film is that you must have lived a life in order to truly appreciate Malick's work. Malick's films are not for some twenty-something who is joyously jaunting through life with the world as their oyster. A Malick film is for those who have experienced the slings and arrows of life and have the scars to prove it, and those who have loved and lost or lost and loved. For example, The Tree of Life is entirely about loss. If you haven't lost a loved one, a dear friend, a child, then maybe the film is a jumbled mush of nonsense. But if you have, like me, lost someone, the film walks you through the questions, the thoughts, the meditations, the doubts, the hopes and the fears of what this life, and the ending of it, all mean. It has no answers, and therein lies the rub.

We have been culturally conditioned to want answers. We pay our $10 and if we are asked a question by a film, then by God that same film better give us answers. And if it doesn't, if we are left walking out of the theatre with questions, with doubt, with a humility before the vastness of the universe and all of time, with nothing more than an understanding of how miniscule and insignificant we are in the big picture of things and yet how meaningful and powerful we are in the lives of others in the same predicament as we are. Well...that causes some people to walk out before the film is over. Or to shut down and seethe while waiting for it to end and then unleashing their boos on anyone within earshot. Or to simply want to go back to sleep walking through life avoiding the only certainty that we are born with...that we will all die. Everyone we know, have known or will ever know, will die. Everything we know, have ever known or will ever know will disappear. And so will we. The clock is ticking.

This is why I love Terrence Malick films, because they feel as if they were made especially for me. Malick and I have lived very different lives, but his films, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, in particular, are as close to my actual inner life and struggles as anything ever captured on film. Malick speaks my language, walks in my world and is able to cut me to the bone and reveal things about my inner being that I wasn't even aware of until he enlightened me. Malick asks me the same questions that I ask myself and struggles with the same answers, or lack of answers, that I struggle with. This is what makes Malick such a genius, and why I admire his work so much, and also why others may loathe his work. 

"MEDIOCRITIES EVERYWHEREI ABSOLVE YOUI ABSOLVE YOUI ABSOLVE YOU ALL." - SALIERI

"MOZART, MOZART, FORGIVE YOUR ASSASSIN!! I CONFESS I KILLED YOU" - SALIERI (AND THE REST OF US)

We live in a world of Salieri's, where mediocrity is rewarded and genius shunned. Some great examples of this are that Steven Spielberg has two Best Director Oscars and Terrence Malick has none. Spielberg is the ultimate Salieri to Malick's Mozart. A comparison of their two war films is proof of that. In 1997, after a twenty year absences from directing, Malick returned with his World War II film, The Thin Red Line, based on the James Jones book. Also that year, Steven Spielberg released his World War II film, Saving Private Ryan. The films could not have been more different and more glaring examples of the genius of one man, Malick, and the pandering mediocrity of the other, Spielberg. 

The juxtaposition of these two films is perfect for making the point about Malick as a singularly unique and original artistic voice and brilliant filmmaker. In Saving Private Ryan, a standard formulaic war film, we are shown the devastating effects of war upon the human body. Spielberg's gymnastic D-Day sequence shows the physical brutality of war in a very tense and riveting way. But after that sequence the film falls into the pattern of standard war film tropes. Malick's The Thin Red Line on the other hand, shows the impact of war not only on man's body, but upon his psyche, his spirit and his soul. Malick also has a vividly compelling war action sequence, where Marines must take a hill with Japanese machine gunners atop it, but Malick gives a more nuanced and human view of war beyond the physical carnage of it, by showing how it impacts not only the external life of the soldiers fighting, but the internal life. The torment of war upon the mind, the heart, the humanity and the spirituality of the men forced to fight it is front and center in The Thin Red Line, and completely missing from Saving Private Ryan. The Thin Red Line is the rarest of the rare, a multi-dimensional, deeply intimate war film that leaves us questioning war and our own righteousness, while Saving Private Ryan is simply another one-dimensional, standard war film that never forces us to question our virtue or morality. Saving Private Ryan shows us men surviving war, while The Thin Red Line teaches us that it is what men do to survive in war that does the most damage to them.

Spielberg won a Best Director Oscar for Saving Private Ryan. No one boos or walks out of a Spielberg film because he never questions his audience or makes them think or feel. He just mindlessly and soullessly entertains and leaves us on our way. Malick never let's his audience, or himself, off the hook. He challenges the audience, to surpass their cultural conditioning and to ask themselves the big questions that they don't want to think about. 

We are the guilty ones. We are all mini-Salieri's who reward the work of other more famous Salieris. Mediocrity has become King in America. Tom Hanks has won two Best Actor Oscars while Joaquin Phoenix has won none. A malignant mediocrity like Steven Spielberg has two Best Director Oscars, when two of the most rare cinematic geniuses, Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick have none. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, poster children for mediocrity, currently lead our Presidential elections. We have sentenced ourselves to a life term of mediocrity and deceive ourselves by calling it greatness. We are the ones to blame for this, no one else.

It is interesting to me that the people who walked out of The Tree of Life when I saw it, and the people who were so dismayed at the Knight of Cups when I saw it, were older people. These are the people who should most be thinking about the questions of life and death that Terrence Malick raises, yet they were the ones who were the most resistant to these Malick films. Maybe the fact that the next big thing to happen in the life of these folks will be the ending of it, is why they do not want to think about death, and they would rather be mindlessly entertained rather than confronted with their mortality. Of course, their fear and cowardice speaks more to them and their failings than it does to the artistry of Terrence Malick.

The people who would walk out of a Malick film, or boo it upon its conclusion, are the same people who laughed at Van Gogh, Picasso, Jackson Pollack or Mozart. They are the Gatekeepers of Mediocrity, Salieri's all, who want to keep genius in a cage while they whistle by the graveyard of their own worthless lives. I don't hate people who boo Malick films, I pity them. These people are missing out on so much beauty and joy and wisdom. To their credit, they do make me think about what things might I be resistant to out there that may be so fantastically wonderful but which I am too afraid to experience or understand. There is a lot of art in the world which is beyond my limited intellect, but I would never be so presumptuous as to boo it and stamp it as worthless. While I may not intellectually understand Jackson Pollack's work, I can still marvel at its dynamism. The same can be said of Opera, or classical music. While those art forms are things I know very little about, I would not presume to belch my inadequacies upon them in order to not feel stupid. Rather I would try and learn more about them and see if I could find the ageless beauty and wisdom that resides within them. 

Malick is an incomparable filmmaker. No one even attempts to do what he is and has been doing in cinema for the last forty years. Terrence Malick is among a very small, handful of true cinematic geniuses the world has ever known. The reality is, if you stand up and walk out of a Malick film, or boo loudly at the completion of a Malick film, that is an indictment of you and your compulsively myopic artistic tastes. Not understanding the genius of a Malick film is not a Malick problem….it is a YOU problem.

The Great Malick Civil War still rages to this day (and obviously, I rage along with it!!), with neither side willing to give an inch, but only one thing is assured…this war will end, and years from now, the fools, the clowns and the idiots who laughed and booed at Malick will be long gone and completely forgotten, but Malick's films will stand as a monument to his genius for the ages to come. Knight of Cups will be among those films which history will revere.

©2016

Bridge of Spies : A Review

****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!!***

MY RATING : SKIP IT.

Bridge of Spies, written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen and directed by Steven Spielberg, is the story of James B. Donovan, an American insurance lawyer who must defend Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy arrested in Brooklyn in 1957 at the height of the cold war. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, struggles to overcome both overt and covert legal, popular and familial hostility in order to give Abel (Mark Rylance) a worthy defense.

The first half of the film is dedicated to Donovan's defense of Abel amid a corrupt legal system. The second half of the film follows Donovan's attempts to facilitate a prisoner swap In East Germany between the Soviets, who want Abel back, and the Americans, who want infamous U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers back. This prisoner swap is made even more complicated as the negotiations are occurring as the Berlin Wall is being built, and an American college student is trapped on the wrong side of the wall.

If you asked most "normal" people, "normal" meaning people smart enough to not work in the film business, who the greatest filmmaker in the world was? Odds are, probably 90 to 95% would say Steven Spielberg. His name is synonymous with modern day filmmaking and enormously successful blockbusters. But I'll let you in on a dirty little secret, if you anonymously asked that same question to people who work in the film business, and they knew their answers would be confidential, the answers would be exactly the opposite. Spielberg would maybe get 5% of the vote. How do I know this? Because I've done it. I talk to people everyday in this business and they tell me all sorts of things you won't hear among 'the normals'.

I'll let you in on another dirty little secret…Steven Spielberg simply lacks the skill as a filmmaker to make a serious film of any notable quality. If you give Spielberg some aliens, dinosaurs or monsters, he'll knock it out of the park nine times out of ten (for instance, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are two popcorn films of unadulterated genius). But give him a true drama with real people, and he fumbles and stumbles his way through it. He can make his serious films appear to be noteworthy to the unsophisticated viewer, with soft lighting and a swelling soundtrack, but anyone with the least bit of artistic sensibility can see that these "serious" films are, like their director, completely devoid of gravitas.

I saw Bridge of Spies a few months ago and have not written about it at all because I found it to be so unremarkable. It is a tepid and flaccid film of no note whatsoever. I was so underwhelmed by it that I basically forgot I saw it and therefore forgot to review it. Then a friend, a famous director whom I will call Director X, emailed me a review of the film with a laughing emoji attached. As a practice I never read reviews prior to seeing a film and almost never after seeing a film. But I read the review my friend sent me and it made me, like the emoji accompanying it, fall out of my chair laughing. The review was glowing and spoke of Spielberg with a reverence usually reserved for saints and martyrs. The thing that made me laugh so hard was the reviewer said that Spielberg made the brilliant decision to "remove all dramatic tension from the film". Think about that sentence for a minute. "Remove all dramatic tension from the film". That is usually something you write about a film when that film is an unmitigated disaster, not when you are praising a director for his brilliance. For instance a reviewer may write, "why on earth would a director REMOVE ALL DRAMATIC TENSION FROM A FILM?" Well…whether St. Spielberg made that decision consciously or unconsciously, I can't say for sure, but he certainly succeeded in "removing all dramatic tension from the film". Spielberg should be charged with dramatic and storytelling misconduct and general directorial malpractice for having "removed all the dramatic tension from the film".

This glowing review was not alone in it's praise of Bridge of Spies, the film is currently at 91% at critic section of the website Rotten Tomatoes. This is less an endorsement of Spielberg's work and more an indictment of the reviewers, in particular, and the business of film criticism in general. Whenever a new Spielberg film comes out you can count on the overwhelming amount of reviews being inordinately positive. Spielberg's power and reach in the film industry is gargantuan, that reviewers are afraid to speak ill of him even when he churns out one of his usual sub-par "serious" films is a testament to his standing in the business and the reviewers cowardice in the face of it. It is amazing that so many reviewers are either that bad at their job and don't know garbage when they see it, or are too afraid to speak truth to the powerful in the industry. Don't believe me? Go read the glowing reviews for the dreadful Amistad, or Saving Private Ryan, which got Spielberg a Best Director Oscar, but which is little more than one great battlefield sequence surrounded by two and a half hours of below standard World War II film tropes. Want more, check out the heavy-handed Munich, or the cloying The Color Purple.

Spielberg's holocaust epic, Schindler's List, is considered to be his greatest film for it won him a Best Picture and Best Director Oscar, but Stanley Kubrick said it best when he said of the film "Think that's (Schindler's List) about the Holocaust? That film was about success, wasn't it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't. Schindler's List is about success, the Holocaust is about failure." As always, Kubrick is right. Here is a great short video of director Terry Gilliam explaining Spielberg and his success. It is well worth the two minutes it takes to watch. In the video Gilliam explains the difference between the genius of Kubrick, whose films make us question, and that of shills like Spielberg, whose films give us answers, and answers that are always soft and "stupid". Spielberg placates us, Kubrick agitates us. Spielberg tell us what we want to hear, Kubrick tells us the truth.

So it is with Bridge of Spies where Spielberg goes to great lengths to assure us that America is unquestionably the moral and ethical beacon of hope in a cold and dark world. There is the opportunity for Spielberg to leave us with a question as to whether American moral superiority is genuine or simply a facade, but he goes to great lengths to eliminate that question when he adds a dramatically misguided coda to the film. This coda is there for no other reason than to squelch any potential uneasiness or doubt within the viewer as to their own, and America's "goodness".

Prior to Bridge of Spies, Spielberg's last piece of crap "serious" film was Lincoln, and it is a perfect example of what I am talking about in terms of Critic malfeasance. I was listening to a podcast on the now defunct Grantland website where some critics were discussing Lincoln and all of them but one were tripping over themselves to praise the film. The one critic who was a bit apprehensive had to keep assuring the others and the listener, that he was, in fact, NOT A RACIST and was against slavery, but that he thought the film was slightly flawed. Good Lord, it was just the worst sort of pandering imaginable. Lincoln isn't a great film, it isn't even a good film, it is a really really really bad film. It is so structurally flawed that if it were a house it would be condemned. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either a dope, a dupe, or both.

There are two things at play here…1. Everyone needs to kiss up to Spielberg and pretend he's some "serious" filmmaker in order to not lose access and get frozen out of the film business where Spielberg is very powerful and has a long memory. and 2. Critics really do not know any better and don't know what the hell they are writing about and just go with the flow of the pandering crowd.

Regardless of why it happens, there is no doubt that it does happen, and that it has happened with Bridge of Spies. Structurally, once again, the film is untenable. Spielberg, just like in Lincoln, adds an unnecessary coda to the film that does nothing more than water down the already thin narrative. 

Just like in Lincoln, in Bridge of Spies, Spielberg adds story lines that do little more than extend the running time and do nothing but muddy the dramatic and narrative cohesion of the story. Just like in Lincoln he has a cloying and candied soundtrack that tells the viewer when and how to feel. Just like in Lincoln, and all his other "serious" films, Spielberg indicates his seriousness with a specific 'soft lighting'.

Steven Spielberg is a huge collector of Norman Rockwell's paintings. This should come as no surprise as he is the Norman Rockwell of filmmaking. Most of Spielberg's 'serious' films are little more than saccharine propaganda espousing America's moral and ethical supremacy. It is sadly ironic that the man who has done so much noble work for holocaust survivors with his Shoah Foundation, has morphed into little more than a modern day American Leni Reifenstahl.

Tom Hanks reprises his role as Spielberg's partner in propaganda crime by starring in Bridge of Spies. Hanks performance is typically Hanks-ian as he does little more than play dignity that often-times veers into arrogant preeminence. Like the film, Hank's performance is of no note whatsoever. It comes and goes without the least bit of notice.

Acting styles and tastes have changed over the years, for instance, go watch Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, a film for which he won his first of back-to-back Best Actor Oscars. Hanks performance, and the film itself, are terribly shallow and vacuous. Watch any Tom Hanks film over his stretch of dominance from 1992 to 2002 and you notice something, Tom Hanks doesn't act, he performs, which is why he is such a match for Spielberg who doesn't create art, but instead makes entertainment. To the uninitiated that sounds like a distinction without a difference, but to those in the know, it is a gigantic difference. There are very rare moments in Hanks career when he stops performing and starts acting (or being), and these moments are glorious, but they are very few and far between.

The first moment of note when Hanks stops performing and starts acting is in Forest Gump when Forest realizes that Jenny has had his child, and then realizes the implications of that and asks Jenny if his child is stupid or not. It is the only real moment in the entire film from Hanks and it is spectacularly human.

Another example is in Captain Phillips, where, after spending the entire film butchering a New England accent...AGAIN (he did the same thing in Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can), Hanks pulls out a moment of genuine humanity that is staggering. The moment is near the end, when Phillips sits in an examination room after his rescue a doctor (who is spectacular in the scene) checks him out to make sure he has no injuries. Hanks says little, but his body starts to convulse uncontrollably and he weeps and wails. It is easily the greatest acting Tom Hanks has ever done on screen.

Do these moments override the previous two hours of bad accent in Captain Phillips, or the shticky performing on display in Forest Gump? For me…maybe…but it depends on what day you ask me.

Hanks is like those actors in the Pre-Brando Big Bang era, actors like Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. He is more playing himself or playing a version of himself that people identify as the "everyman". What has bubbled to the surface in Hanks "everyman" work in the latter part of his career, is that "everyman" has become "smug and contemptuous". There is a haughtiness that seeps through his pores that I find odd and frankly puzzling. A great example of this is in a scene from Saving Private Ryan where Hanks' character listens to Matt Damon's character do a monologue about he and his brothers growing up.

That same air of superiority, the "my poop don't stink but yours sure does" attitude, is on full display from Hanks in Bridge of Spies as well. How the American everyman came to be so arrogant and high and mighty I have no idea, but in the world of Spielberg and Hanks, he certainly has. 

A few final notes in terms of the acting in Bridge of Spies (which is a horrendous name for a film by the way, no doubt thought up by some marketing genius at a studio). First, Mark Rylance gives an outstanding and meticulous performance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Rylance is one of the great Shakespearean actors of our time, and he was the first artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London (1995-2005). Many, many moons ago I had the good fortune to study with him while I was in London. He is a fountain of knowledge regarding acting and Shakespeare, and is a very soft-spoken and genuinely kind person. His work in Bridge of Spies has garnered him a much deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar. I don't know if he will win, but I will certainly be rooting for him. I also hope he does more film work and a wider audience gets a chance to appreciate his brilliance.

Another actor of note is Eve Hewson, who plays Tom Hanks daughter in the film. Hewson doesn't have too many scenes in the film, but she is captivating whenever she is on screen. There is one scene where she is lying on a couch eating ice cream that in the hands of a lesser actress would have been little more than a throwaway, but Hewson makes it a vibrant sequence worthy of attention. In a strange twist, Eve Hewson is the daughter of Paul Hewson a.k.a. Bono. Bono is, of course, the lead singer of U2, which took its band name from the same plane Francis Gary Powers was flying over the Soviet Union when he was shot down. Spooky coincidence or brilliant subliminal marketing…you decide!!!

In conclusion, Bridge of Spies is another in a long line of Spielberg's uncritical and pandering "serious" films. It is just another one of the Spielberg-Hanks propaganda collaborations that is painstakingly safe and flag-wavingly dull. In fact, I have an admittedly insane theory that both Spielberg and Hanks are contract propaganda agents of the U.S. intelligence community. Obviously I don't have time to share my tinfoil hat wearing madness with you here, but just go look at both of their filmographies and notice a pattern in the themes running through the films of both of them (case in point…notice in the re-release of E.T. Spielberg edited out the government agents guns and replaced them with walkie talkies and flashlights!!). Ok…enough of my rambling, just know that in the final analysis, Bridge of Spies is a film of no consequence that you never need to watch. If it is in the theatre, save your money and skip it, if it is on cable, don't waste your time, just change the channel. 

One final note, thank you for reading, and if you could do me a favor and keep this review between just the two of us, I'd really appreciate it. I don't want Steven Spielberg getting wind of it as I'll never work in this town again if he hears I've bad mouthed one of his movies. Also, I'm pretty sure the notoriously vicious Tom Hanks might murder me with a baseball bat if he found out I said a bad word about his work. I will thank you in advance for your discretion. 

©2016