Movie Picks: 1917, Just Mercy

1917

I was sorry not to like 1917 better, because that conflict is cinematically neglected (trailer). Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make it by his grandfather’s stories of World War I (a rare veteran who would apparently talk about his war experience).

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the near-suicidal task of crossing nine miles of hostile territory to reach the commander of some 1600 British troops, Blake’s brother among them. They carry orders for the commander to call off an offensive that is a certain trap. The power of the opening scene, one long take, and the two lads’ perilous trek across no-man’s land dwindles into predictability. There’s an overlong chase scene through a bombed-out town, and an unnecessary encounter with a Frenchwoman and baby (why?). Still, audiences not familiar with The Great War may find it bracing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 89%.

Just Mercy

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of Stevenson’s early days as a legal advocate for prisoners (trailer). His organization, Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than a hundred wrongly convicted death row inmates.

In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) has taken on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted to murdering a young white woman on evidence so flawed no court should have accepted it. Jordan and Foxx do a terrific job—Jordan, unwavering; Foxx, afraid to hope.

Stevenson, in real life, and in one scene in the movie, says the issue is not the fate of a single individual, but the system that institutionalizes discrimination and thwarts equal justice. (See his inspiring recent Firing Line interview here.)

Half a century after the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, those battles are not over, and the movie, though bringing out familiar tropes in both black and white characters, is a good reminder. As Danny Leigh says in the Financial Times, “The markers of the story are so familiar (venal law enforcement, leaned-on witnesses, the courtroom), it takes nerve to tell it this simply.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 99%

*****The Spy and the Traitor

By Ben Macintyre – A pal of John Le Carré, Ben Macintyre brings the novelist’s gift for writing compelling characters and page-turning narrative to the nonfiction realm. The Spy and the Traitor, subtitled “The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War,” is based on the defection to Britain of KGB operative Oleg Gordievsky, and it provides at least as many thrills as the best espionage novel.

Gordievsky, raised in a family where working for the KGB is the family business, becomes disenchanted with Soviet hypocrisy. Posted to Denmark, he has a tantalizing taste of what life is like when lived outside a surveillance society. A British MI6 agent, working in Copenhagen under classic diplomatic cover, notices him and several modest bits of outreach are made by the two of them, but nothing comes of it. Gordievsky, however, sees his future and when he returns to Moscow, works at becoming accepted into the KGB’s English-language training program. Finally, he succeeds. After a few years, he’s posted to London.

Then the connection is made, and over at least a dozen years, he secretly works for MI6.

The intelligence he provides and particularly his insights into the Soviet mindset are pivotal in the late Cold War era, and he provides significant background for Margaret Thatcher’s meetings with Soviet leaders. His advice helps her craft proposals they can accept. It’s vital and thrilling diplomacy, all accomplished well out of public view.

I especially enjoyed the intriguing nuggets of tradecraft Macintyre drops as he follows Gordievsky’s twisting path. That level of detail is just one feature inspiring confidence in the narration and investment in the protagonist’s fate.

Throughout his years spying for Britain, Gordievsky is, of course, acutely aware that Soviet paranoia is ever on the lookout for leaks and traitors. MI6 is so protective of him, they do not even reveal his identity to the Americans. Good thing, too, because the head of counterintelligence in the CIA at the time—Aldrich Ames—is himself a double agent. Ames ultimately betrays more than two dozen Western spies inside Soviet intelligence, effectively signing their death warrants. His motive? Money.

Every so often, Gordievsky and his family are required to return to the Soviet Union for a term of months or years. This is the normal rotation to prevent personnel from becoming too attached to their place of posting. In case he comes under suspicion while inside the Iron Curtain, MI6 prepares an elaborate escape plan. No one is truly confident this plan can work, least of all Gordievsky. A breakdown at any point will be disastrous. But once Ames fingers him, they must give it a try, and that whole episode is a real nail-biter.

Macintyre’s book won the 2019 Gold Dagger for nonfiction, an award sponsored by the UK Crime Writers’ Association. John Le Carré calls The Spy and the Traitor, “The best true spy story I have ever read.”

Photo: tiburi for Pixabay.

*****The Kennedy Moment

By Peter Adamson – In this political thriller by former UNICEF official Peter Adamson, the reunion of five college friends launches a do-good project that none of them could have anticipated, that has every potential of imminently and disastrously going off the rails, and that has almost incomparably high stakes.

In the early 1960s, a group of Oxford University students were best friends. As Stephen Walsh, a stubbornly Marxist professor writes to the others, “We’ve lost touch, the months drifting into years and the years into decades.” He proposes a reunion.

Michael Lowell, the only American, leads a World Health Organization team on childhood immunization; Seema Mir works on a biography of the African American Hemings family; Toby Jenks is the hard-drinking creative director of an advertising agency; and Canadian Hélène Hevré is a physician, exhausted from the demands of tending patients within the minimalist health care system of Côte d’Ivoire.

The relationships among these friends, especially the two almost-couples (Michael and Seema; Toby and Hélène), are believable and sometimes painful because the characters are so engaging.

At the reunion, Toby, with his flair for the outrageous, responds to the health professionals’ angst over vaccine-preventable illnesses saying, “Seems to me, possums, the obvious thing to do here is to get hold of a little test tube of cached smallpox virus and threaten to blow bubbles with it in Times Square unless the world gets off its butt and immunizes every last kiddie.”

A few months later, the friends reunite in New York. No one has forgotten Toby’s little joke, and before long they have a plan to use smallpox virus to blackmail the US government into fulfilling its immunization commitments. But it must be carried out in complete secrecy.

Predictably, the government focuses not on meeting these mysterious demands, but on finding out who is behind this little venture and stopping it. To them, it’s bioterrorism, and a nail-biting chase is on. Meanwhile, Toby crafts a powerful statement for the US President: “Twenty years ago, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade. Today, the United States commits itself to another great goal: a goal for our times; a goal to be achieved here on earth; the goal of immunizing all of the world’s children against the major killer diseases of childhood.”

I loved this book and the daring team of characters that took on the crimes of neglect and half-measures. Hugely satisfying and out of the ordinary. Available here.

Photo: anjawbk for Pixabay.

Movie Jam-Up

popcorn

In Hollywood’s haste to release films under the wire for this year’s Oscars, a number of excellent movies appeared during the holiday season, and I haven’t even seen them all yet. But I would recommend these:

Ford v Ferrari – One of the most exciting films I’ve seen in a long time, and not a single spy in sight, other than the corporate kind (trailer). And the tension held, even though I knew the ending. Yes, some of the corporate doings of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his management team were fictionalized, but not Ford’s 1966 accomplishments on the LeMans race course. Wisely, Ford entrusted creation of his racing vehicles to legendary engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who insisted on using his favorite driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Damon and Bale are perfection. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 98%.

Little Women – So much has been said about how writer/director Greta Gerwig draws new insights from this much-produced tale. Her framing of the story of four sisters growing up in the mid-19th century works (trailer), and in sister Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan’s) negotiations with her publisher (Tracy Letts again), the blending of Jo with author Louisa May Alcott is clear. Amy (Florence Pugh) receives a more well-rounded treatment than usual. She has the best lines of the movie, suggested by Meryl Streep, when she matter-of-factly explains to Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that marriage for a woman is not a question of love, but finances. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 95%; audiences 92%.

Dark Waters – Tales of crusading lawyers and journalists (think Spotlight, The Post) are especially refreshing in these times, when idealism seems quaintly outmoded. The film is based on the true story of how a determined Cincinnati lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) takes on DuPont for covering up the damaging health effects of Teflon exposure (trailer). He persists, even though the head of his law firm (Tim Robbins), which serves many corporate clients, is reluctant; his wife (Anne Hathaway) thinks he’s unhinged; his kids grow up; and the powerful company works for two decades to shut him down. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 90%; audiences 95%.

Knives Out – It’s very entertaining to see writer/director Rian Johnson put this great cast—among them, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Ana de Armas—through its paces (trailer). Wealthy family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who made a fortune writing mystery stories (this is fiction, remember) is found dead of an apparent suicide. But was it? Not only do his children stand to inherit, but they all have additional motives to kill him. Or do they? Courtly Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to sort lies from truth. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 97%; audiences 92%.

Go Like Hell! On Screen

The new movie, Ford v Ferrari, is based on the exciting 2010 book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, by AJ Baime. The movie, directed by James Mangold, stars Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Tracy Letts (trailer). It opened while I was in Egypt and audiences love it! (98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). Critics too: 91%.

I’ve listened to the book twice over the years. If the movie is as good as the book, it’s a must-see. It is for me, no matter what. Here’s my review of the book, read by Jones Allen.

Go Like Hell is the story of classic duels of machine and driver in the French countryside.There’s just enough biography of Henry Ford II (the Deuce) and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition.

The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. The components that had to be developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product reliability as well as power, and many advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have found their way into passenger cars.

For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans.

If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,” the big names are all here: Carroll Shelby, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw that race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime notes that at top speed, they complete the 100-yard distance of a football field in one second.

This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn, Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California, and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was a thrill a minute! But even for people who don’t get goosebumps when they hear those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and tragedy is a spectacular true story.

Times have changed, and these past automotive battles have faded. But, hope is on the horizon. According to a 5/22/15 Jordan Golson story in Wired, new rules under consideration “could make Formula One exciting again.” Yea to that!

Watch for These Films!

Unlike the two excellent first-run movies reviewed last week, showing widely now, it may take a little effort to seek these three out. Well worth it, in each case. To help, the hotlinks for two of them include a “where showing” button.

The Lehman Brothers Trilogy

A National Theatre Live broadcast of a London play about a family “that changed the world,” written by Stefano Massini and directed by Sam Mendes, may come to a theater near you. It’s coming to Broadway too, not sure when. Though I wasn’t sure I’d like it, with only three actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles—playing every part, it’s a stunner (trailer). And staged so cleverly. It follows the original three brothers through their earliest days as immigrants in Birmingham, Alabama, through the establishment of a foothold in New York and their dizzying success there, to the company’s inglorious end. Find a showing here.

Van Gogh & Japan

A documentary by David Bickerstaff explores how, now almost 140 years ago, Vincent Van Gogh incorporated in his art themes and ideas from Japanese art (trailer). He learned about it by studying woodblock prints available at the time. His interest took place in a France whose artists were captivated by Japonisme. Excellent commentary. The film’s a beauty, if, at 85 minutes, a bit longer than necessary. Find a showing here.

Shadow

Van Gogh had his Japonisme, I have my love of ancient-China action movies! Zhang Yimou’s 2018 film, is all in “shadowy” yet rich tones of black, gray, and white, heavy rain and fog throughout (trailer). The only color is from candle flames and people’s skin. And, when it comes, the shocking red of blood. A rival clan has occupied the hero’s city. The hero (Deng Chao), stripped of his rank, approaches the rival leader to carry out a pledge for single combat—which he has scant hope of winning. But if he does win, his clan gets its city back. And he has a ragtag army to take on the leader’s well-trained forces using an innovative weapon—umbrellas. Not like yours. Yin-Yang symbolism, excellent score, and romance (Sun Li), too. If you enjoyed Zhang’s previous movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers, you’ll love this one!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences 82% (Americans don’t like subtitles).

Lever Templar: A Castellum One Novel

By Matt Gianni – The Knights Templar, a Catholic military order that distinguished itself during the Crusades, existed for less than two hundred years. But it has been a treasure trove of secrets and mysteries, real and imagined, ever since. When this thriller begins in 1307, the Holy Land has already been lost, and the Templars are under siege. One thing has preserved them through the era’s political vicissitudes—the Lever Templar—a scroll that would “redefine Christianity.” What and where is it?

In the opening scenes, Knight Malcolm of Basingstoke and his sergeant Brimley Hastings break into the Templar’s Preceptory south of London to steal an ancient leather pouch. Only later does Brim, who becomes the hero of the piece, learn the pouch contains the Lever Templar. Malcolm and Brim escape to Cyprus, where the Templars maintain a tenuous presence. There they reconnect with old friends, including a young woman who becomes Brim’s love interest, while violent opposing forces scour the island for the missing scroll. And so Brim’s quest to safeguard the Lever Templar begins.

In current-day Mosul, Iraq, American Rick Lambert works for the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s Investigations Unit, trying to solve a rash of Christian priest abductions. He partially foils the latest attempt, during which a dying priest hands him an ancient domino, saying, “protect Cyprus.” Vatican emissaries are sent to bird-dog Lambert (that is, to make sure anything he finds that’s important ends up back in Rome). The Farsi-speaking terrorists targeting Christian churches know about the scroll and believe it will destroy Christianity. And so the modern-day race to find the scroll commences.

This is a rip-roaring adventure told in chapters alternating between ancient and current times and with lots of characters. Gianni does what I wish more authors would do to help you keep it straight: maps of the principal locations are especially helpful, because he’s not generous with place descriptions; ditto his list of characters, real and fictional. He’s done a creditable job in portraying life seven centuries ago in a believable way. I loved the detail of how they used carrier pigeons to deliver messages across long distances!

Gianni’s writing style is clear and has strong forward momentum. With more delving into his characters’ feelings, he might encourage a greater emotional connection with them, but if people are best known by their deeds, those are certainly on view here. He makes a half-hearted attempt to give Lambert a character flaw—excess drinking after his terrible Army experiences in Fallujah (left to your imagination)—but it isn’t convincing, never gets in Lambert’s way, and has been done too many times. If you’re a fan of the Indiana Jones franchise or appreciate the speculations of Dan Brown and others, you’ll find this an exciting companion.

*****Blood

scissors, blood, editing

By Maggie Gee — Far from the ordinary crime story, literary author Maggie Gee’s Blood is a comic excursion into the rough-and-tumble mind of narrator Monica Ludd. She’s 38, over six feet tall, outspoken and awkward, far from tiny with, as she is fond of pointing out, an enormous bosom. When Monica squeezes you into the rollercoaster seat beside her on page one, you’re in for a wild ride.

Monica claims to be a respectable citizen of East Kent. Doubtful. Much of the story plays out near the seacoast there and on the peninsula of Thanet. The little community, the seashore, the shops—come to life nicely. Even such a remote area has its dose of violence, terrorism, and, well, blood.

Monica has a job. She’s the deputy head in a school, loathes her new boss, and takes no pains to hide it. She thinks he’d like to be rid of her, and who could blame him?, but he rarely stands up to her.

Monica has a family. She calls them “artistes of awfulness.” She landed in the middle of a congeries of three boys and three girls, all grown up now. Ma’s in a care home, forgetting everything or choosing not to remember, it’s hard to say which. It’s Dad who drives the family disaster train. He’s a dentist who has sex with his patients in the chair. He’s a serial philanderer whose current girlfriend is two decades younger than Monica. When his children were young, he beat them. He mocks them yet. His bullying drove his youngest son Fred into the Army, and the siblings blame him for Fred’s death.

The final insult—and the inciting incident of the novel—occurs when the siblings organize an elaborate party in Fred’s memory, and Dad doesn’t show up. Monica is so angry, she says she’s going to kill him. Alas, a lot of people hear this threat, and the next morning when Monica finds Dad’s brutally beaten, blood-soaked body, even her siblings think she’s a murderer. That attack launches her impulsive and lengthy campaign of lies and misdirection. There’s truth in the old saying, blood is thicker than water, and you see it here. Her siblings’ loyalty to her through this whole saga says volumes about the sides of Monica that she tries to hide with her bluster.

In Monica, Gee has created an unforgettable character. Not only large, but larger than life. Profane and resourceful. She speaks her mind, loudly (rarely a good thing). And she is a genius at self-justification. All of which I found highly entertaining, even on the not-infrequent occasions that I was embarrassed for her.

From a crime fiction point of view, Blood is refreshingly unconventional and a reminder that violence and retribution, jealousy and fear, have been important literary themes forever. Literary novelist Maggie Gee, OBE, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was its first female chair.

Photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license

Maiden

Twelve times since 1973, an international set of racing yachts has taken to the ocean for a Round the World Yacht Race (first sponsored by Whitbread brewery and now called the Volvo Ocean Race, under its new sponsor). It’s dangerous work, with crews pitted against each other, the weather, and the implacable seas. Until 1989, ocean racing was a man’s game, with women unwelcome even in the galley. Only five of the 200 crew members on boats in the race before 1989 were women.

But in that year, everything changed, as shown in the riveting new documentary written and directed by Alex Holmes detailing the voyage of the Maiden (trailer). Using 30-year-old footage it includes film of the trip, comments by other captains, and excepts from upbeat interviews with the Maiden’s captain, Tracy Edwards. Interviews with her today reveal how frightened she was. For a very long time, she couldn’t get a sponsor for the expensive venture; even running the race was costly, with a land crew to meet and help them at every stop. A lot was riding on her boat’s success.

No one expected them to do well against the 22 other boats in the race. Everyone knew “girls” couldn’t sail such a demanding course. The local Portsmouth punters took bets on how far they’d get—out of the harbor, then back? the Canary Islands? No one expected them to finish the race’s first leg, across the Atlantic to Uruguay, much less the entire race. The dismissive yachting journalists and rival captains reinterviewed today have vivid memories of how Edwards scuttled their assumptions.

The Maiden won the most grueling leg of the race, across the far south latitudes, icebergs and all, to reach Australia, then the shortest, around to a stop in New Zealand, which required precision boat-handling. It wasn’t just the physical challenge of controlling a 58-foot boat in heavy seas. It was a mental and endurance challenge as well, especially for Edwards, who served as skipper and navigator.

For every member of the crew then and now, this experience was the adventure of a lifetime. An uplifting journey for viewers too. Says Adam Graham in the Detroit News, Maiden “ tells a story whose tidal waves were felt far beyond the deck of her ship.” And you stay dry.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 98%.

****No Way to Die

ancient China

By PA De Voe – If you want a total escape from Brexit or US or European politics, PA De Voe’s second-in-series Ming Dynasty Mystery, No Way to Die, will take you back to late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert van Gulik, set six hundred years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was delighted to find De Voe’s well-crafted series.

The prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions, just enough information to let you picture the scene—a style in keeping with both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent Chinese language.

Women’s doctor (and woman doctor) Xiang-hua is asked to serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed. Numerous males of the community are concerned the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for the young Xiang-hua. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations (striking a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century). It’s tough, but she’s in possession of herself well enough to discover the dead man, muddy and bloody, had been stabbed in the back.

The local officials want to know the victim’s identity and, if possible, who stabbed him, before they have to report the crime to higher authorities. If they fail to find out, it will likely to bring down the wrath of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant outcome in ancient China, as punishments were plentiful and harsh. This is a prime example of how De Voe uses 700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic memes of modern crime stories: the ticking clock.

The investigation enables a fascinating trip back to a colorful and simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across eons. De Voe’s training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society. I’ll be looking forward to more of her excellent tales!