“Seconds” – Starting Over

Note: This contains some spoilers, so proceed accordingly.

The first time I saw John Frankenheimer’s Seconds I didn’t like it. This was in October  1966 while I was undergoing basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. Sundays were a the only day off from training. Hordes of new recruits with buzzcuts, including myself, crowded the movie theater on base to see whatever was being shown. I was excited to learn that Seconds was on the schedule. I loved the Frankenheimer films I’d seen, which included The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and especially The Train (1964). I would have gone to see whatever was playing that day, because any break from the rigidity of the daily training routine was a relief, but it was bonus that it was a film from one of my favorite directors.

I had high hopes for Seconds, about which I knew little. It was a John Frankenheimer film, and that was good enough for me. As it turned out, I was confused and disappointed by Seconds that day. I don’t know what I’d expected, but it wasn’t that. In retrospect, the film may have been too alienating and depressing for someone attempting to adjust to the structures and strictures of military life.

I wasn’t alone in my initial reaction. Though it has since developed an ardant cult following, Seconds was booed at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966. It did poorly at the box-office and wasn’t released on home video market until May 1997. Frankenheimer has said, “It’s the only film I know that has gone from failure to classic — without ever being a success.” In an essay on the film in Danny Peary’s book Cult Movies 3 (1988), Henry Blinder writes, “Seconds is quite possibly the most depressing movie ever made — it is a film of unrelieved despair.” Lewis John Carlino, the screenwriter of Seconds, has said that “…it is almost too painful to watch.”

I can’t remember how many years went by before I saw Seconds again, but I was probably out of the Air Force and back in college by the time I did. The way I saw the film changed somehow. Things that had bothered me no longer did. The statements above by Blinder and Carlino are true enough, but don’t detract from the strength of the film. I’ve seen Seconds many times since then, and have come to regard it as a great film, one of Frankenheimer’s best.

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The protagonist of Seconds is Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph), a middle-aged banking executive who lives with his wife in Scarsdale, New York, and commutes by train to his job in New York City. He feels that his life is empty and meaningless; he and his wife simply co-exist without intimacy; there’s little contact with the married daughter who lives in Denver. When a phone call from a friend Arthur thought dead offers the opportunity of a new life, a new beginning, he’s more than ready. It’s the lure of a second chance. Seconds is the story of how Arthur Hamilton is reborn as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) and how that works out for him. The short answer is: not well, which is hardly a surprise given the look and feel of the film from the very first frame. Seconds is a paranoid thriller, a nasty satire with echos of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alice in Wonderland, a Kafkaesque nightmare, science fiction, and finally, a horror film.

The opening credits by Saul Bass and the first few minutes in Grand Central Terminal set the tone, aided immensely by Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score with its ominous organ chords.

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The cinematography was by James Wong Howe, who used wide angle lenses (18mm and 9.7mm) almost throughout, which resulted in surreal and disorienting visuals. Frankenheimer said that Wong Howe’s contribution to the film was enormous. He received an Oscar nomination for his work. Frankenheimer was 35 and Wong Howe 60 when they collaborated on Seconds. Frankenheimer had also worked with composer Jerry Goldsmith extensively during his early years directing live television, so they were in sync.

John Frankenheimer & James Wong Howe

The rights to David Ely’s 1963 novel were purchased by actor Kirk Douglas and producer Edward Lewis’ production company. Frankenheimer had directed their previous film, the excellent Seven Days in May, and was hired to direct Seconds. The original intent was to have one actor play both parts, Arthur Hamilton and Tony Wilson. Frankenheimer and Lewis thought Laurence Olivier was the only actor who could pull this off. Olivier reportedly agreed to do it, but the studio, Paramount, didn’t feel he was a bankable movie star. Rock Hudson was then approached. He said he could only do the post-transformation part, which resulted in John Randolph being hired to play Arthur Hamilton. Frankenheimer said that making the transition from John Randolph to Rock Hudson was his hardest task. While I don’t think it’s entirely believable that Randolph could be transformed into Hudson through plastic surgery and physical therapy, I’m willing to go along because the performances of both are so good. A footnote to this is that Frankenheimer said Seconds was shot largely in sequence, which was a great help to Randolph and Hudson’s performances. Plus they had the benefit of two weeks’ rehearsals prior to shooting.

Telegram from Frankenheimer to Hudson after one their early meetings.

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Right from start the opening credits tell us this will be a dark ride with little or no room for humor. Well, almost no room. Arthur has been given an address on a slip of paper and has to follow an absurdly circuitous route to get to his destination. Later, Mr. Ruby (played by Jeff Corey), a high-pressure salesman of sorts for the nameless company, explains to a nearly uncomprehending Arthur that his death will need to be faked using a cadaver. He can never go back. He has to walk away from everything and everyone he knows. Ruby says, “The question of death selection may be the most important decision of your life.” This seems like a joke to me. A problem I had the first tme I saw Seconds was that Jeff Corey’s character seemed too obvious, overdone. As he explains things to Hamilton, Ruby pauses several times to exclaim how great the fried chicken is that he’s eating, a meal that was intended for Arthur, who doesn’t want it. This has always seemed exaggerated to me, but I think it fits. Arthur has gone through the looking glass. Logic no longer applies.

Will Geer plays the avuncular head of the company, who sweet talks Arthur into taking the final step, in effect signing a deal with the devil. He quietly convinces Arthur that he has nothing of any value left in his life. He says, “Isn’t it easier to go forward when you know you can’t go back?”

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It’s hard to see how Arthur’s new life as Tony Wilson could ever have worked. Based on something he says while under hypnosis, the company decides that Tony should be an artist, a painter. They provide credentials, diplomas, and paintings he’s supposed to have done. They decide he’s to live in Malibu, California, in a house on the beach. He’s given a new life that he has no real control over. So it’s no real surprise when it all goes haywire. His life becomes more of a nightmare than it ever was.

Tony leaves Malibu and goes back East. He stops at his old home to visit his wife, who thinks he’s a friend of her dead husband. Tony asks her about her husband and gets hit with this: “You see, Arthur had been dead a long, long time before they found him in that hotel room.”

Tony returns to the company with the idea of being “reborn” yet again, but this time doing it “right.” He doesn’t realize that’s not in the cards. He failed as a newborn and is now in a queue to become a cadaver when he matches the requirements of a death to be faked for a new “client.”

It’s hard to overstate how good Rock Hudson is in this film. Known up to this point mainly for light romantic comedies with the likes of Doris Day, it would have been difficult to imagine him in a part like this in a film like this. He later said this was the best work he ever did. The scene at the end, when he’s strapped on a gurney and realizes what’s happening, seems to go beyond acting. It’s truly harrowing and, as the screenwriter said, “…almost too painful to watch.”

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The final scene of Seconds (8:23). Rock Hudson goes all in, nothing left in the tank.

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John Randolph

Frankenheimer & Hudson

Frankenheimer on set.

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Supplemental

Rock Hudson talks about filming a scene in Scarsdale. Includes footage of John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe at work. (4:18)

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Article on James Wong Howe’s cinematography for Seconds.

“The Surreal Images of Seconds” – American Cinematographer January 31, 2018

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Selection of scenes highlighting Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Seconds.

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I’ll close with posters for Frankenheimer’s superb “paranoia trilogy.” Be safe. — Ted Hicks

P.S. Seconds is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Dieselpunk – Retro Futures

As often happens, when I was recently looking online for one thing, I came across something else entirely that took over my attention. These are images depicting such things as flying locomotives and aircraft carriers, which are highly detailed, simultaneously retro and futuristic. Because they were just so cool to look at, I began randomly saving them on my computer, not overly concerned with where they came from or what they might represent. But a little context doesn’t hurt, so I looked further.

The images come out of something called dieselpunka term I was totally unfamiliar with. Per Wikipedia, this is “…a genre similar to steampunk that combines the aesthetics of the diesel-based technology of the interwar period through to the 1950s with retro-futuristic technology and post-modern sensibilities…the term has since been applied to a variety of visual art, music, motion pictures, fiction, and engineering…The name ‘dieselpunk’ is a derivative of the 1980s science fiction genre cyberpunk, and represents the time period from World War I until the 1950s, when diesel-based locomotion was the main technological focus of Western culture. The ‘-punk’ suffix attached to the name is representative of the counterculture nature of the genre…The term also refers to the name given to a similar cyberpunk derivative, ‘steampunk,’ which focuses on science fiction based on industrial steam power and which is often set within the Victorian era.”

I’ve read a lot of science fiction and am a big fan of William Gibson’s novels Neuromancer (1984) and Count Zero (1986), and his short-story collection Burning Chrome (1986). Neuromancer was the ground breaker; these works — with influences from punk subculture and hacker culture — were instrumental in establishing  cyberpunk as a genre. Gibson and Bruce Sterling co-authored The Difference Engine (1990), an early novel in the steampunk genre, which I’ve yet to read.

Still with me? I think now I should show some of the images that so attracted me. I’ve also found three videos that expand the horizons, so to speak. I’ll start with one of those.

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Much of this depicts war weaponry and military gear. It nags at me that here’s a kind of fascist vibe to some of this.

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Some of the more playful inventions depict airborne ships (as in boats).

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This video is an excellent display of the dieselpunk aesthetic, though the way women are presented suggests adolescent fantasies at work.

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The dieselpunk illustration above shows the influence of actual railway ads of the 1930s below.

 

 

 

 

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Typical dieselpunk cityscapes. These are also evocative of the film Blade Runner (1982).

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Even though it predates the term dieselbpunk, the alternative comic book Mister X (Vortex Comics, 1983-1990) is certainly part of that world. I used to have a bunch of these, but they are now gone, alas.

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An example of the influence of dieselpunk in our culture — though definitely not in the mainstream — can be seen in “Dieselpunk Brew,” produced by World Brews, a craft beer company in California. I think this is an interesting tangent. If I was still drinking, I’m sure I’d have to take a run at it.

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Dieselpunk vehicles.

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Rosie the Riveter pressed into dieselpunk service.

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Films that include aspects of dieselpunk and sometimes cyberpunk include the following:

20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Richard Fleischer, director – 1954)

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, director – 1982)

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, director – 1985)

Dark City (Alex Proyos, director – 1998)

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, director – 2015)

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, director – 1927)

Mortal Engines (Christian Rivers, director – 2018)

Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, director – 1987)

The Rocketeer (Joe Johnston, director – 1991)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, director – 2004)

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho, director – 2013)

(All are available for streaming on Amazon Prime, with the exception of Metropolis, which is available on MUBI. Snowpiercer is also available on Netflix.)

Metropolis

20,000 Leagues under the Sea

Blade Runner

Mad Max: Fury Road

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This final video displays a range of dieselpunk art. It credits the artists and is accompanied by a very cool version of “Minnie the Moocher.”

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As I said at the beginning, dieselpunk is a term and a subject I was previously unaware of. So when I Googled it, I was startled to see the pages and pages of links that came up. There’s a whole world of this stuff that’s under the mainstream radar. Check it out, if you’re interested to find out more.

That’s all for now. Be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Flying Fortresses in My Life – Supplemental

For a deeper dive, here are materials additional to part one.

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This is an excellent documentary on the B-17 with includes reminiscences by WWII veterans. It runs just under an hour.

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Target for Today is a feature-length documentary produced as a training film in 1944. It was directed by Hollywood filmmaker William Keighley. It details in rather numbing, painstaking detail how a bombing mission is planned and carried out, step by step from start to finish. The line readings by most of the on-screen participants are so stilted you just know they have to be the real people. But whatever else you can say, it’s certainly instructive.

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This clip demonstrates the digital restoration of 16mm footage shot by William Wyler in 1943 for the documentary The Memphis Belle.

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This short clip shows movie stunt pilot Paul Mantz belly-landing a B-17F for the film Twelve O’Clock High (1949).  As per the description on YouTube by Don Holloway, “Plenty of pilots had solo-landed shot-up Flying Fortresses during the war, but nobody was sure you could take off that way; the throttle levers required two pilots. Offered the then unheard-of payment $4,500 (about $46,000 today), Mantz welded a steel bar across the throttle cluster and got the Fortress airborne. According to the story, while approaching downwind for the cameras, lost rudder authority and wiped out some film crew tents. The footage was so good it can be seen again, from a slightly different camera angle, in 1962’s The War Lover, with Steve McQueen.” Besides being recycled for The War Lover, this footage was also used in at least one episode of the TV series 12 O’Clock High, an adaptation of the 1949 feature film.

Note: The original clip in this post has since been removed from YouTube. Here is a replacement that shows the same footage.

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12 O’Clock High aired on ABC for three seasons from 1964-1967. Episodes can be seen on YouTube. Here’s one of them. It runs about 46 minutes .

This series also generated comic books and even a board game.

 

 

 

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I read a lot of war comics when I was growing up. One of the best illustrators of these was Russ Heath. His incredibly detailed style was immediately identifiable. Here are a few examples.

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B-17s were also popular as model kits. Here are two examples.

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Here’s the complete feature film of The War Lover (1962). It has Greek subtitles, which is weird, but after a while you barely notice them. The print is in good shape. The competition between Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner for local woman Shirley Ann Field is nothing special, but the footage of the B-17s on the ground and in the air is spectacular. Also, for the first time I saw how the ball-turret gunner gets into his position. The film runs 1 hour 41 minutes.

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I’d like to close with two personal accounts sent to me after part one appeared last Friday. They both illustrate the randomness and absurdity of the violence that could happen at any time. It’s black humor at its most acidic, worthy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Or would be, if they weren’t so tragic.

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Someone I’ve know for quite a few years contacted me on Facebook. David told me his father was in training to be the ball-turret gunner on a B-17. The gunner was crammed into a clear ball-shaped capsule on the bottom of the fuselage that could rotate 360 degrees and fire twin .50 caliber machine guns. While still completing training, the plane in front of his exploded and an airman bailed out. Somehow the parachute got caught up in the ball turret of his dad’s plane. Nothing could be done and they landed dragging this poor guy along the runway. His father was completely freaked out and he finished the war as a radio instructor. David remembers the strife on his dad’s face when he recounted the experience.

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Susan Waggoner, a friend of mine since college in Iowa City and later here in New York, sent me the following, which she gave me permission to include:

“My dad’s younger brother also flew out of England – was at an air base near Exeter, and they did bombing raids over Germany. Dale was the bombardier. One night they took a direct hit on their way home. Pilot was trying to get them close enough to England to crash land there, so he told the guys to empty the guns and throw them over the side. Must have been chaos. One of the guns did not get completely emptied, went off and shot my uncle just under his left eye. He died instantly. Dale  was the baby of the family and died a few days short of his 19th birthday.”

Dale Waggoner

“For most of my life, we only knew that he had been killed in action, and after reading Catch-22 I worried that he had died like Snowden, all alone in that cold bomb bay. So when the internet opened the world up, I checked and found the site for his bomber group. I was lucky in that several of those men were still alive. They were great! They all wrote to me, told me they remembered Dale as a hard working Iowa kid who liked pranks, and a shared a bit about their time there…

“…The other eye opener I got from Dale’s crew was that I’d always assumed he would have been the youngest member of the crew. He wasn’t. One of the guys was 15! He’d lied to get in, married his girlfriend before being deployed, and now she was at home expecting twins. People grew up fast back then.”

Dale (standing left) and his bomber crew

“Have you ever looked at the casualty rates for those bomber squads? The number of KIA’s was jaw dropping. Dale is buried over there, in a British cemetery honoring Americans killed during the war.

“I have often thought, as I’ve grown older, how big a role that war played in all our lives. It was all around us – all of us grew up making tents from army blankets or using Navy towels. I still have my dad’s footlocker. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo seemed like it was on the late night movies all the time. My dad was a nervous flyer because he’d been on an aircraft carrier plane that crashed into the water on takeoff – almost died because he got pinned underwater under a heavy metal bar but had one those adrenaline bursts and got it off himself so he could swim to the surface.. He never told me any of this. Those men didn’t talk much.” — Susan Waggoner

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That does it for now. I’d like to re-dedicate this post to my dad, Milton Hicks, and also to David’s dad and Dale Waggoner of Alta, Iowa. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Documentaries, Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, Non-Fiction, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | 2 Comments

Flying Fortresses in My Life

As long as I can remember, I’ve always been in love with B-17s. The fact that my dad was a navigator in one during World War II is probably what initially sparked my interest. I know it’s what influenced me to join the Air Force in 1966. The B-17 has become an iconic image of almost mythological power that triggers a nostalgia for something I’ve experienced only vicariously. The B-17 represents WWII more than any other aircraft of that time. It’s a beautiful design, incredibly photogenic, and undeniably romantic (to those of a certain age). And yes, the B-17 was a war machine, with all that implies.

My father’s connection to this story makes it a very personal one for me. Typical of most combat veterans, he didn’t talk much about what he’d experienced or what it felt like. He’d talk about the technical aspects of it, but not much else. I regret not asking him more about this, what he did between missions, how he passed the time, if he visited the town, went to pubs, made friends of the locals, and so forth. And I wish I’d asked more about the missions themselves. One story I know, and I don’t remember if he told me or if my mom passed it on, is that once when they’d returned to base after a mission, he noticed a hole in the flooring close to his navigator’s station. A chunk of flak had blown up through the plane and out the top. He hadn’t been aware of it at all when it happened. They were always that close to a bad end. By the time my dad was flying combat missions in 1944, our fighter planes had longer range and could accompany bombers most of the way to the target. This meant Germany no longer put up fighters to attack the bombers. But there was still plenty of anti-aircraft fire. The Germans didn’t even bother shooting at the bombers themselves; they’d simply fire shells in box patterns over the target area. There was flak everywhere and no way to avoid it. You just had to fly through it and hope for the best.

A story my mom told me is that on one mission a B-17 in front of my dad’s took a direct hit that blew it out of the sky, no survivors. One of his best friends was on that plane. My dad suffered depression through the 1950s. I’m sure that was connected to stuff like this. I don’t know how people who’ve been through combat come back to their lives. Certainly not the same.

Another story is that my dad was on one of his worst missions the day I was born. This probably is just a story, though I’d like to believe it’s true. Here’s the telegram my grandmother sent to my dad in England, two days after I was born on July 31, 1944.

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I didn’t know many details of my dad’s military career until after he died in 1975 and I acquired his service records. I didn’t really go into them in any detail for a long time, but I’ve taken a much closer look in preparation for this post. He enlisted in the army in January 1941 at age 23 and trained as an MP, a military policeman. He was a cop! I never knew this. He went through OCS from August to October of 1942. He came out a 2nd Lieutenant, and for the next nine months served as a company commander at Camp Clark, an Italian POW camp in Nevada, Missouri. I knew about the Japanese internment camps during the war, but wasn’t aware there were hundreds of camps in this country for German and Italian prisoners of war. By the end of the war there were 425,000 POWs (mostly German) at camps here. I had no idea of the scale of this. I don’t remember my dad ever talking about this phase of his military service. In July 1943 he transferred to the Army Air Corps to train as a pilot. He was eliminated from flight school, then began training as a navigator.

My dad was navigator on B-17s for eighteen months; six months of this time was in the European Theater (“Theater” is an interesting way to designate a region of warfare). He was stationed in England from July to December 1944 with the 325th Bomb Squadron of the 92nd Bombardment Group (Heavy). The base was RAF Podington, six miles southeast of Wellingborough, in Bedfordshire, north of London. He flew thirty combat missions in a B-17G, the final version of that aircraft. Eleven of these missions were flown as lead navigator, meaning he was directly responsible for the direction to and from the target for a formation of as many as 400 aircraft. Like a human GPS. He also assisted the bombardier in locating the aiming point of the target. Each mission lasted about ten hours from takeoff to the return landing. B-17s had ten-man crews, four officers (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier) and six enlisted men. The name of my dad’s plane was “El Lobo” (The Wolf). Below is a photo of my dad, Milton Hicks (center,) with four of his crewmates.

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He was discharged in November 1945 and returned to resume farming on the Iowa farm he and his father before him had grown up on. I grew up on it, too, though I didn’t stay  and become a farmer. He was always interested in aviation and passed that on to me. Every summer there was an air show at the airport in Sioux City. Most years we attended that. We liked to watch a CBS documentary series called Air Power, which was produced with the cooperation of the U.S. Air Force and showed the rise of aviation as a military weapon. Narrated by Walter Cronkite and filled with archival footage, it originally aired on Sunday evenings from November 1956 to May 1957, with reruns during the summer and fall of 1958.

At some point my dad bought a balsa-wood model kit of a B-17. He began working on it with his usual precise care, but for some reason never completed it. The unfinished model remained on a shelf in his workshop in our basement for years.

My dad had many photos he’d taken while in England, many at the base. I vividly remember one of a B-17G with the nose completely blown out. These aircraft were notoriously tough. They could take a lot of punishment and still fly. I wish I had these pictures, but after he died, they somehow disappeared.

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My interest in B-17s reached a culmination of sorts in 2003 when I took a short ride in one. I’d heard of the Collings Foundation, an organization located in Massachusetts that had a large number of restored aircraft, many of WWII vintage. I knew that one of these was a B-17G, and that they took it and other planes on their annual Wings of Freedom Tour. These would stop at airports around the country where the public could see the planes also take a ride in them. When I learned they would be at an airport in Farmingdale, New York, it didn’t take long for me to sign up for a ride. I think it was in October. I took a train to Farmingdale and a cab to the airport.

The 30-minute flight cost $400, but I’ve never regretted it for a minute. I wanted to get an idea of what it was like for my dad. The vibration and noise was extreme, but it wasn’t like we were flying at 30,000 feet in heated suits and on oxygen. We weren’t in the air for the ten hours most missions lasted. Most importantly, people on the ground weren’t shooting at us and we weren’t flying through clouds of flak. Other than those minor differences, I think it brought me an inch or two closer to what it might have been like for him at the time. I don’t know how any of those guys did it.

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Here are some photos I took that day. *****

It was a thrill when I first saw the B-17 sitting on the tarmac.

The bombardier’s position was in the nose. My dad’s station would have been somewhat back of that, where the two windows are above the nose art and “Nine O Nine” name on the fuselage.

The bombardier’s position.

Ready for my closeup.

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A disturbing footnote to my B-17 ride is that this same aircraft crashed during a similar flight last October in Connecticut. Seven people, including the pilot, co-pilot, and five passengers were killed after the aircraft crashed short of the runway during an emergency landing following engine trouble. The 74-year-old aircraft was a total loss. The Collings Foundation began preparing a replacement B-17 for passenger flights, but in March 2020, the FAA revoked their permission to resume such flights.

This B-17 flew safely for 13 years after my flight, but it feels weird knowing what happened.

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I think the staying power of the B-17 can be witnessed by its presence in popular culture. This is probably more relevant for people of my generation and earlier than it is for subsequent ones, but B-17s have been prominent in feature films, documentaries, TV shows, books, even comics, board games, and more.

Below are some of the films.

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Flying Fortress (Walter Forde, director – 1942). The RAF had acquired a number of B-17Cs from the U.S. in early 1941, which I hadn’t known. The premise of Flying Fortress, per Wikipedia, is this: “During the Blitz, an arrogant American pilot becomes increasingly committed to the Allied cause after ferrying B-17 bombers from Canada to England. After joining the Royale Canadian Airforce and being assigned to an RAF squadron, he finally takes part in a Flying Fortress bombing raid on Berlin.” I’ve not seen this film, and in fact had not heard of it. I have the feeling it may lean a little heavy on melodrama, but since it’s one of the first to feature B-17s, it’s of interest.

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Air Force (Howard Hawks, director – 1943). Tells the story of an unarmed B-17 and its crew flying to Hickam Field in Hawaii on December 6, 1941. They arrive just in time for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s pretty good. — available on Amazon Prime.

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The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, director – 1944). Documents the 25th mission of the title plane. Wyler shot this in 1943, operating one of the cameras himself. — available on YouTube.

Note: A feature film directed by Michael Caton-Jones titled Memphis Belle was released in 1990. It purports to be a dramatization of the Memphis Belle’s final combat mission depicted in the Wyler documentary, but has virtually nothing to do with anything that actually happened. Filled with every cliché and stereotype you can imagine, this is a phony film, quite bad. Because of the subject matter, I’d been looking forward to it, but was very disappointed. It has a nice sense of period, but that’s about all. I didn’t like it in 1990 and I still didn’t like it when I saw again a few days ago. It’s available on Amazon Prime in case you want to see for yourself.

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The Cold Blue (Erik Nelson, director – 2018). Excellent documentary utilizing footage (digitally restored) shot by William Wyler in 1943 for the making of The Memphis Belle. Intercut with this footage are present-day interviews with surviving pilots and crew members who flew on B-17s during the war. — available for streaming on HBO.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, director – 1946). A truly great film about the difficulties experienced by several returning veterans following the end of the war. Frederick March’s first sight of his wife (Myrna Loy) at the end of a long hallway when he enters his home after years away is incredibly powerful. In a devastating scene near the end at a scrapyard for decommissioned aircraft, former airman Dana Andrews hoists himself into the nose of a B-17 and just sits there with his memories. This is a classic film, one of the best. — available on Amazon Prime.

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Twelve O’Clock High (Henry King, director – 1949). With Gregory Peck as the commander of an 8th Air Force base in England during the war. A very good film. — available on Amazon Prime.

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The War Lover (Philip Leacock, director – 1962). Based on the novel by John Hersey, with Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner as pilot and co-pilot flying B-17s out of a base in England. McQueen’s character is in love with death. He played a similar character the same year in another World War II picture, the very tough Hell Is For Heroes, directed by Don Siegel.

One thing I especially like about The War Lover, regardless of whether it’s a good film or not, is the use of several restored B-17s. All of the scenes with the aircraft feel very authentic. This was well before CGI. — available on Amazon Prime.

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There’s more, but this is enough for now. Part two, with supplemental material, will appear shortly. In the meantime, I’d like to dedicate this post to my dad, Theodore Milton Hicks (1917-1975), gone too soon at age 57. I wish he was still around to tell me what he thought about this post, and all the stuff I got wrong. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Documentaries, Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

“The Vast of Night” – Something in the Sky

I hadn’t heard of The Vast of Night before reading the New York Times review last May. It sounded very interesting, so I watched it on Amazon Prime two days later. The film is a knockout, a superior piece of work on every level. I watched The Vast of Night again a week later. I intended to write about it then, but experienced a failure to launch, so to speak. Now, two months later, I’m making good on my original intention, albeit a bit rushed. As a refresher, I watched it for a third time yesterday. It’s just as good as it was the first time.

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The film’s opening takes us into an empty living room where we see a retro television set with flickering, indistinct images on the screen. We hear a voice that is uncannily evocative of Rod Serling’s introduction to Twilight Zone. The sound and cadences are perfect. We hear the following:

“You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten, a slipstream caught between channels, the secret museum of mankind, the private library of shadows – all taking place on a stage forged from mystery and found only on a frequency caught between logic and myth. You are entering Paradox Theater. Tonight’s episode: The Vast of Night.

Black and white becomes color as the TV screen expands and takes us into the story. The conceit is that what we’re about to see is a TV show. But I don’t know if I take The Vast of Night as an episode on television. Maybe this is a portal into the “real” story. By the way, I love the line “…caught between logic and myth.” This very much applies to The Vast of Night.

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Per Wikipedia, the premise is that  “…a young switchboard operator and a radio disc jockey discover a mysterious audio frequency that could be extraterrestrial in origin.” The Vast of Night is set in Cayuga, New Mexico, population 492. The year is 1958. Sputnik, launched into orbit in 1957, is mentioned in the dialogue. Desert settings were popular in science fiction films of the 1950s, such as It Came from Outer Space (1953), Them! (1954), and Tarantula (1955). New Mexico is also where Roswell and Area 51 are located. So the landscape is appropriate for weird stuff to go down. Cayuga is a fictional town, but feels very real.

The first 20 minutes or so is a lot of chitchat that serves to introduce the two main characters and get to know them. Everett Sloan (played by Jake Horowitz) is a disc jockey on a local radio show. He’s probably 19 or 20 and tends to speak in wise cracks. Fay Crocker (played by Sierra McCormick) is a 16-year-old switchboard operator for the phone company. We first meet them in the gymnasium at the Cayuga High School where the first basketball game of the season is about to start. Seemingly the entire town is there.

Fay is smart, a bit twitchy, and often breathless. Her first rapid-fire words to Everett as they leave the gym are these: “Can I bring you my tape recorder so you can show me how it works?” They’re obviously good friends, but Everett makes fun of Fay a lot. He responds with “I don’t know what you just said, Fay. You sound like a mouse being eaten by a possum.”

The camera follows them in a long, low tracking shot that reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s low tracking shots following Danny Torrence down the halls on his small bike in The Shining (1980). The camera work by Miguel I. Littin-Menz is superb throughout.

Fay is going to her night shift on the switchboard and Everett to the radio station to DJ his “Highway Hits” show. During their walk Fay, excited about scientific predictions she’s read about, is anxious to tell Everett. She chatters on about “vacuum tube transportation…the trains travel between 2000 & 5000 mph in these tubes all across the country. That’s how it’s all gonna be. It’s called vacuum tube transportation. All these tubes, they crisscross all of the world, so we’re gonna sit in cars that run through the tubes like little hotdogs through a garden hose. It’s gonna be everywhere by the year 2000.”

She also talks about self-driving cars with what sounds like a kind of GPS guidance system and tiny TV telephones. Fay says she read about this in Modern Mechanix magazine. This resonated with me because I used to read predictions like this in magazines such as Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Mechanics that my dad would get during the 50s.

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At the switchboard, Fay hears a strange, distorted kind of static on one of her lines. She calls Everett at the radio station to see if he knows anything about it. He tells her to send the signal and he’ll put it on the air, asking listeners if they’ve heard anything like it before. At this point, about 30 minutes in, the story begins in earnest.

After Fay sends the signal, she leaves the board and opens door of the switchboard office to stand in the doorway and light a cigarette. The camera goes past her out the door and begins to glide down the empty street and across open lots, very low. Goes to school gym and enters, the basketball game is in progress. Leaves through a window (I think there’s a cut at this point) and continues tracking through town to the radio station where Everett stands outside smoking a cigarette. The shot ends as a call comes in.

This is a bravura sequence, shot to look like a single take. This kind of thing can call attention to itself; it’s not invisible. But there’s something about it that captures a sense of strangeness and expectation that I think defines the film. This was the moment when I knew I was in good hands, that I was seeing something special. Here, see for yourself.

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Everett takes a call from a man named Billy, who says he has heard the sound before. Years before, when he was in the military, he was on a detail with other soldiers who were flown to an undisclosed spot where they buried something large and mysterious in the ground. During this time he heard the sound. In the ensuing years he learns that the sound was being recorded at different times and places, sometimes at altitudes higher than any plane could fly. Billy speaks in a soothing, even voice, but there’s an ominous quality to what he says. As he talks, the image changes to that of the Paradox Theater TV screen, then fades to black entirely as he tells his story. His basically uninterrupted monologue lasts approximately 12 minutes. The sound of his voice is mesmerizing.

Fay, who has also listened to Billy’s account, asks Everett if he believes Mr. Billy’s story. He replies, “I don’t know, but if there’s something in the sky, I want to know.”

They then receive a call from a woman named Mabel Blanche, who lives in Cayuga. She says she can tell them what’s behind the sound, but they have to come to her home to hear it. At 60 minutes in, we go to see Mabel Blanche at 1616 Sycamore. She says things like, “They’ve come here before…the people in the sky.” And then speaks of her son Hollis, who one night walked outside and vanished. Hers is a monologue that, like Billy’s, is hypnotic. And, like Billy’s, it also lasts around 12 minutes.

Fay and Everett encounter a man and woman who have driven in from the desert. The man and woman are alarmed and upset. “There’s something in the sky. Have you seen it? Hiding in the clouds.”

A crowd leaves the gymnasium, game over, unaware of what’s happened. But what has happened? The Vast of Night never quite spells it out, but it comes pretty close.

This is an extraordinary film. With a very low budget of $700,00, the filmmakers have achieved something quite special. I think Steven Spielberg and J. J. Abrams would be impressed. I know I was.

The Vast of Night was directed by Andrew Patterson. It was written by Patterson (under the name James Montague) and Craig W. Sanger. The excellent sound design was by Johnny Marshall and David Rosenblad, with an original score by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer. Not to forget the performances of Sierra McCormick as Fay and Jake Horowitz as Everett. They are wonderful.

It would be nice to see this film in a theater, but for the time being you can watch it on Amazon Prime.

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Supplemental Material

This will probably be most useful once you’ve seen the film.

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How the long-take prowl around town was achieved.

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Anatomy of a Scene: Building Tension with a Strange Sound.

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Interviews with Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz.

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That about wraps it up. See you later. Be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Feature films, Film posters, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

Actors on Acting – Lockdown Edition

I follow Chris Evans on Twitter. A few days ago he referenced a conversation he’d recently had with Paul Rudd for the Variety series “Actors on Actors.” Due to Covid-19, this was filmed remotely with each of them in separate locations. When I looked it up on YouTube, I found a number of such conversations between other actors, which I’m including here.

To varying degrees, there’s a lot of talk in these about how great and wonderful the other person is, but that’s not all. Each actor has a recent project or projects to discuss, and frequently real talk breaks through as they get into the nuts and bolts of their work. The conversations are very much of the moment, especially when discussing the realities of Covid life in lockdown and how that affects their lives.

All of these talks are very interesting, but I especially like the Patrick Stewart/Henry Cavill and Sandra Oh/Kerry Washington discussions.

Below I’ve cited the shows they discuss in each segment and where those can be seen.

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Chris EvansDefending Jacob (Apple TV)

Paul RuddLiving with Yourself (Netflix)

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Jennifer Aniston The Morning Show (Apple TV)

Lisa Kudrow Feel Good (Netflix), Space Force (Netflix)

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Patrick StewartStar Trek: Picard (CBS All Access/Amazon Prime)

Henry Cavill The Witcher (Netflix)

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Reese Witherspoon Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu), The Morning Show (Apple TV)

Regina King Watchmen (HBO)

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Sandra Oh Killing Eve (Hulu seasons 1 & 2 now; season 3 available December 2020)

Kerry WashingtonLittle Fires Everywhere (Hulu)

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Wait, one more. I thought I was finished with this, but was checking YouTube to see if I’d missed anything and found this conversation between Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman. This was put up just one day ago. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but want to include it.

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Anne Hathaway Modern Love (Amazon Prime)

Hugh Jackman Bad Education (HBO/Amazon Prime)

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That’s all for now. Stay tuned for the next post. Meanwhile, with apologies to Hill Street Blues, be careful out there. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Comics, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

Films During Lockdown – Highlights of What I’ve Seen, Part 2

Part 2 — May 1 to May 23

As I mentioned in Part 1, until movie theaters reopen, I’ll continue seeing films on my laptop or our flat screen TV. Nothing beats seeing them on a theater screen, but until they reopen, this will have to do. I saw 61 films between April 4 and May 23. Here are notes on a few of those, taking up where I left off in the previous post, listed in the order I saw them.

Unless otherwise specified, these films are all available from Amazon Prime.

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I’d only seen You Can Count on Me once before, when it was released in 2000, but it stayed with me. Kenneth Lonergan’s first feature — he wrote as well as directing — is extraordinary and deeply moving. The writing is incredible and the performances outstanding. Even though Mark Ruffalo has credits going back to 1989, this was when I became aware of him, and also the first time I remember seeing Laura Linney. It was the first real screen role for Rory Culkin, who plays Linney’s young son. The relationship he has with Ruffalo, who plays Linney’s visiting brother, is wonderful. Their night out playing pool in a local tavern is a charmer. This is a film I love, and I don’t know why it took so long for me to see it again. (Viewed on DVD)

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Seeing Laura Linney in You Can Count on Me made me think of a film we’d liked that she did with Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Savages (2007 – Tamara Jenkins, director). So that was next on the list. Linney and Hoffman play a brother and sister with a cantankerous relationship who suddenly have to move their father into a nursing home. They’re really great, no surprise there. The final image with a dog on the reservoir track in Central Park is deeply moving and hopeful.

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Not sure why, but Elmore Leonard came to mind and I naturally thought of two excellent movies made from his novels, Out of Sight (1999 – directed by Steven Soderbergh) and Get Shorty (1995 – directed by Barry Sonnenfeld). Both were scripted by Scott Frank, who perfectly captured Leonard’s tone and language. I think Out of Sight is the better film, but Get Shorty — especially John Travolta — is so much fun it’s impossible to resist.

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Directed by Howard Hawks in 1946 and written by Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, and William Faulkner, The Big Sleep is near perfection. It has one of the definitive Humphrey Bogart performances as private eye Philip Marlowe. This was Lauren Bacall’s second time co-starring with Bogart after To Have and Have Not (1944 – also directed by Hawks). Their on-screen chemistry is almost supernatural. A really great film. I’ve seen it many times and it’s always a pleasure.

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Bogart again. Black Legion (1937 – Archie Mayo, director). This is a film I knew basically nothing about. I saw a reference to it somewhere recently and looked to see if it could be streamed. I was suitable impressed. Bogart plays a factory worker who gets persuaded to join a Ku Klux Klan-inspired group known as the Black Legion. This was before his screen persona became more defined. He’s quite good in the role. The film resonates with today in unsettling ways, particularly in the anti-immigrant, “America first” views professed by the Black Legion. Where have I heard that lately?

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If I believed in the concept of guilty pleasures, which I don’t, films like this would probably be one of them. Den of Thieves (2018 – Christian Gudegast, director & writer) strives for epic scale, and with a running time of 148 minutes and solid production values and performances, it almost gets there. Gerard Butler leads an elite squad of cops trying to take down an elite gang of bank robbers. He’s an actor with a kind of thuggish charm who often edges into the unappealing for me. But not this time. He fits this part perfectly. Butler frequently plays action heroes who save the day a la Bruce Willis in films such as Olympus Has Fallen (2013), London Has Fallen (2016), and Angel Has Fallen (2019). These are films that can be fine to watch if you take your brain out of gear.  That said, I saw Den of Thieves in a theater and watched it again here. It’s a cut above. A sequel is on the way.

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I saw The Company Men (2010 – John Wells, director & writer) at a screening ten years ago. I always intended to see it again, so when I was thinking of what to watch last month, it came to mind. The Company Men is a very well made film concerning a group of executives in a ship-building company who get laid off and have to deal with finding work again. The excellent cast is led by Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kevin Costner. Chris Cooper is particularly affecting.

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The Quarry (2020 – Scott Teems, director & co-writer) may not be fully realized, but it sure sets a mood. Shea Whigham plays a man on the run who kills a preacher at the outset and takes his place in a small Texas town. Michael Shannon, tightly wrapped as usual, is the town sheriff who knows there’s something off about Whigham. Both are excellent actors who seldom disappoint. They previously acted together in Jeff Nichols’ terrific feature Take Shelter (2011) and the 6-part Netflix series Waco (2018). If not for the current pandemic, The Quarry would certainly have played in theaters before being released to streaming, but this is where we are. It’s very noirish, which is always good. It never quite gets there, but I found it well worth seeing.

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Just as seeing Laura Linney in You Can Count on Me made me want to see her in The Savages, that film made me want to see Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man (2014 – Anton Corbjin, director), which was his final leading film role. This in turn made me want to see him in Capote (2005 – Bennett Miller, director), in which he gives a truly stunning performance as Truman Capote, for which he justly received an Academy Award. Capote takes place during the time Capote was researching and writing In Cold Blood. Catherine Keener plays his childhood friend, Harper Lee. I hadn’t seen Capote in 15 years and had forgotten a lot of it. Seeing it again reinforced how great Hoffman was, but there’s also the sorrow and anger I feel when I think of how he died from a drug overdose in 2014 at age 46. This makes me want to track down and see again or for the first time his other films. One of those is A Late Quartet (2013 – Yaron Zilberman, director), in which he acts opposite Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener. I have a good memory of it. This, too, is available on Amazon Prime.

I previously wrote about A Most Wanted Man in a blog post from 2014, which can be accessed here.

As a supplemental feature, here is Philip Seymour Hoffman discussing Capote on an episode of The Charlie Rose Show.

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For the record, here are the rest of the films I saw from May 1 to May 23, listed in the order viewed. You’ll see I went through a frenzy of Marvel superhero films, for which I offer no apologies or excuse.

As previously noted, unless otherwise specified, these titles are all available from Amazon Prime.

Django Unchained (2012 – Quentin Tarantino, director & writer) NETFLIX

Funeral in Berlin (1966 – Guy Hamilton, director)

The Wretched (2020 – Brett Pierce & Drew T. Pierce, directors & writers)

Fright Night (2011 – Craig Gillespie, director)

American Ultra (2015 – Nima Nourizadeh, director)

The Man from Nowhere (2010 – Jeong-beom Lee, director & writer)

Atomic Blonde (2017 – David Leitch, director)

Evening (2007 – Lajos Koltai, director)

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011 – Joe Johnston, director)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014 – Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, directors)

Captain America: Civil War (2016 – Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, directors)

The Avengers (2012 – Joss Whedon, director & writer)

Thor (2011 – Kenneth Branagh, director)

Captain Marvel (2019 – Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, directors & co-writers)

The Kingdom (2007 – Peter Berg, director)

Sleepless (2017 – Baran bo Odar, director) NETFLIX

Point Blank (2019 – Joe Lynch, director) NETFLIX

Good Fellas (1990 – Martin Scorsese, director)

Empire Falls, Parts 1 & 2 (2005 – Fred Schepisi, director)

Cracked Up: The Darrell Hammond Story (2019 – Michelle Esrick, director) NETFLIX

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That wraps it up for now. Stay tuned for whatever comes next. Until then, be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Comics, Feature films, Film posters, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 3 Comments

Films During Lockdown – Highlights of What I’ve Seen, Part 1

Part 1 — April 4 to April 30

We used to say that we “see” movies in a theater, but “watch” them on TV. The semantics of that difference are interesting to me. Though as more and more films have been viewed in recent years via streaming and video discs on flat screens in the home, I’m not sure it’s a valid distinction anymore. And since mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down movie theaters, seeing (or watching) films can only be done on television or computer screens, and even (shudder) your phone.

So until movie theaters reopen, I’ll continue seeing films on my laptop or our flat screen TV. As I’ve said before, nothing beats seeing them in a theater, but in the meantime, this will have to do. I saw 61 films between April 4 and May 23. Here are notes on a few of those, listed in the order I saw them. Part 2 will cover May 1 to May 23.

Unless otherwise specified, these films are all available from Amazon Prime.

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I’d only seen Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, director) once before, when it was released in 2008. I felt badly let down by it, especially when compared to Daniel Craig’s initial appearance as James Bond two years before in Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, director). That film took Bond back to his beginnings and effectively reinvented the character for the new millennium. It was tough, gritty, and often brutal, with a physicality that had some heft to it. Quantum of Solace did not seem up to that level. For one thing, what the hell did the title mean? Also, Mathieu Amalric, an excellent French actor I always enjoy seeing, did not seem up to the larger-than-life level required of a Bond villain. He was too ordinary. Nonetheless, I decided to record it when I saw that HBO was showing the film a month or so ago. Since I’ve recently seen all the Bond films with Daniel Craig, including the so far unsurpassed Skyfall, I thought this was a good opportunity to take another run at Quantum of Solace. It was much better this time than I’d remembered. I’m not sure why, exactly, but maybe I want everything I see during this plague year to be good, which makes me feel more generous. Movies don’t change, but our responses often do.

Since I was in the mood, over the next two days I checked out some classic Connery Bond. I’d always felt that From Russia with Love (directed by Terence Young, 1963) was the best Bond film, the most realistic. Then Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964) set the template for what was to come. So I was surprised to find that, with the exception of the fight on the train, From Russia with Love didn’t seem very good at all. And oddly enough, Goldfinger, which I hadn’t much cared for the last time I saw it, now seemed a lot better. Weird.

Sean Connery’s fight with Robert Shaw on the train in From Russia with Love is still great — dimly lit, violent and claustrophobic. You can feel the punches. An interesting aspect of the fight is that it plays without any music whatsoever. This was much more effective than having a bombastic score laid over it. In Spectre (2015), Daniel Craig has a brutal slugfest with Dave Bautista on a train that pays homage to the From Russia with Love fight. It also doesn’t have music, except near the end.

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I’d been dipping in an out of Scott Eyman’s biography of John Wayne and thought I’d revisit The Alamo (1960) and The Shootist (1976). The Alamo, directed without much distinction by Wayne is overlong, overblown, and over the top, but it’s not terrible. Lawrence Harvey as William Travis and Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie bring some style to their roles. John Wayne brings John Wayne to his role as Davy Crockett. The Shootist was directed by Don Siegel, who might seem an unlikely choice for a John Wayne movie. But it’s a good film, probably made more interesting by the fact that it was Wayne’s final film, and that he had cancer, as did his character in the movie. This provided a somewhat ghoulish meta-level to the proceedings.

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The Harder They Fall (1956) is a film I hadn’t seen before. I knew Humphrey Bogart was in it, but that’s about all. Directed by Mark Robson, this was Bogart’s last film role. Like John Wayne, he was dying of cancer, but his performance as a sportswriter who gets caught up in the dirty end of the prize fight business is as strong as anything I’ve seen him give. The boxing scenes are quite brutal.

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Next up was a Mel Gibson triple feature. I’d basically written him off, but his performances in these films go a long way in changing my mind. Get the Gringo (2012), directed and co-written by Adrian Grunberg, has a kind of twisty Elmore Leonard/Coen Bros. vibe. In Blood Father (2016), directed by Jean-Francois Richet, Gibson is a father determined to rescue his daughter from drug dealers. The best of the lot is Dragged Across Concrete (2018), written and directed by S. Craig Zahler. The film definitely lives up to its title. Anyone familiar with Zahler’s work knows that he plays for keeps. A very, very tough movie.

Blood Father is on Netflix.

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Criminal (2016, directed by Ariel Vroman). This film isn’t really about anything, but I found it quite engaging. It’s interesting seeing Kevin Costner play a character like this. His transgressive behavior is both appalling and liberating at the same time. Of course, he ends up being a good guy. The film has a good cast, including Gal Gadot the year before she broke big in Wonder Woman.

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And now, a genuine classic, All About Eve (1950, written & directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Top notch in every way. Terrific dialogue and a definitive performance by Bette Davis. And once again, the great Thelma Ritter shines.

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I hadn’t seen Public Enemies since it was first released in 2009. Michael Mann, who directed and co-wrote, is one of my favorite directors. I think of him in the same league as David Fincher and Ridley Scott, all very serious guys.

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I guess I wasn’t done with John Wayne, because I decided to see Rio Bravo again. Directed by Howard Hawks in 1959, I liked it a lot better this time. Lots of reappraisals happening in lockdown. Would have been nice to read the comic book, too, but you can’t have everything.

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I’d seen Forsaken (2015) twice before and liked it a lot. It has the well-worn premise of a gunfighter determined to hang up his guns for good. It’s inevitable that by the end he’ll be forced to pick them up again. Nothing new, but it’s all in the telling, and Forsaken, directed by Jon Cassar, does it well. Cassar had directed Kiefer Sutherland, who plays the gunfighter, in the TV series 24, so they were used to each other. Donald Sutherland plays his father, a preacher angry with his son for the life he chose. This was the first time they’d been in a film together. It’s hard not to wonder if some real-life tensions were being worked out on screen. For me, seeing it is a very satisfying experience. The ending isn’t quite what you’d expect from this type of  story. Michael Wincott stands out as a gentleman gunfighter for the other side.

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Another film written and directed by S. Craig Zahler. I’d resisted seeing this in theaters because the first film of his I’d seen, Bone Tomahawk (2015), freaked me out so much I was afraid to see what he might do next. That film has some of the most frightening images, one in particular, that I’ve ever seen on the screen. I’m reluctant to see it again, though part of me very much wants to. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a tough movie, too, if not quite as extreme. Vince Vaughn fullty inhabits his character to an impressive degree in a go-for-broke performance. I was surprised, just now when I double-checked Zahler’s credits, to find that he’s made only three features so far. He’s a major talent, though a very scary one.

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For the record, here’s the rest of I saw from April 1 to April 30, listed in the order I saw them. As previously noted, unless otherwise specified, these titles are all available from Amazon Prime.

World War Z (2013 – Mark Forster, director)

Top Gun (1985 – Tony Scott, director)

Outbreak (1995 – Wolfgang Peterson, director)

Miami Vice (2006 – Michael Mann, director & writer)

Man on Fire (2004 – Tony Scott, director

Jack Ryan, Shadow Recruit (2014 – Kenneth Branagh, director)

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956 – Fred F. Sears, director)

Extraction (2020 – Sam Hargrave, director) NETFLIX

John Wick (2014 – Chad Stahelski, director)

Body of Lies (2008 – Ridley Scott, director)

Bad Education (2020 – Corey Finley, director) HBO

Blood and Wine (1996 – Bob Rafelson, director)

Sea of Love (1989 – Harold Becker, director; Richard Price, writer)

Wonder Woman (2017 – Patty Jenkins, director)

Angel Has Fallen (2019 – Ric Roman, director & co-writer) NETFLIX

Salt (2010 – Phillip Noyce, director)

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Stay tuned for Part 2, which will continue with films watched from May 1 to May 23. Be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Comics, Documentaries, Feature films, Film posters, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 4 Comments

Best TV 2019 & 2020 – Supplemental

Here are supplemental materials for some of the titles listed in my last two posts. I didn’t think there was going to be much, but it turns out I found a lot. Pick and choose, as per your interests.

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The following interview with Titus Welliver and author Michael Connelly was recorded in 2014 after the release of the first season.

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Counterpart

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Deadwood: The Movie

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Gentleman Jack

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Goliath

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Grantchester

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Marc Maron: End Times Fun

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The Plot Against America

An article by critic A.O. Scott on The Plot Against America and alternative histories can be accessed here.

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Unbelievable

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Unorthodox

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I know this is a lot, especially all the podcasts for The Plot Against America, but we all have more time on our hands these days than we normally would (whatever “normal” was). In any event, I promise not to post anything new for a few days. Be safe in the meantime (and all the time). — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Film, Film posters, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

TV, Cable & Streaming – Best of 2019 & 2020 (so far) – Part 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Marc Maron: End Times Fun – (Netflix)  This was obviously recorded well before the coronavirus outbreak, but it feels like it was done five minutes ago. Resonates sharply with our current times. Maron is also incredibly funny and inventive. An extended bit in the last ten minutes featuring Jesus, Mike Pence, Iron Man, and Satan on Judgement Day will have your jaw on the floor, wondering how he came up with that and then had the nerve to do it.

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My Brilliant Friend – The second season is currently showing on HBO. We loved the first. The series is based on four novels by Elena Ferrante. Each season adapts one of the books, so there will be two more seasons. So far, the current season is as good as the first. As the characters are getting older, the stakes are higher. It’s very layered, emotional, and upsetting at times. The atmosphere is rich and almost three-dimensional.

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Occupied – (Netflix)  We came to this series late, and as usual when we like something, binged through all three seasons. Most of these series are fairly formulaic, but it comes down to how it’s done, and this one is very, very good.

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The Outsider – (HBO)  Based on Stephen King’s terrific novel, this series combines the police procedural with the supernatural in a very concrete way. Ben Mendelson, great as usual, plays a police detective struggling to get his head around a seemingly impossible mystery. Cynthia Erivo is a self-styled investigator who shows him the way. My initial attraction, other than that I really liked the novel, was that Richard Price created the series and co-wrote it. Besides being an excellent novelist, he was also behind another great series on HBO, The Night Of, not to mention writing several episodes of The Wire, the greatest series ever, as I never get tired of saying.

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The Plot Against America (HBO) – David Simon series based on a Philip Roth novel that posits an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh runs against Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president. He wins on a platform of keeping the U.S. out of World War II. Jews in America rightly fear that Lindbergh’s embrace of Hitler is not good news. The sixth and final episode, written by Simon, aired last night, and it was a killer. The parallels with what’s going on in this country today have been unavoidable throughout. I doubt that Trump Republicans would like this series, assuming they would even watch it. Which would be appropriate.

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Santa Clarita Diet – (Netflix)  Another series I came late to, after much prodding by a friend. I loved it immediately and proceeded to watch all three seasons. Timothy Olyphant discovers his wife (Drew Barrymore) is a zombie. Hilarity ensues. It’s quite a change seeing him in a comic role like this, after knowing him from Deadwood and Justified.

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Secret City – Two seasons on Netflix – a political thriller set in Australia, with Anna Torv (Fringe) a nosey reporter. Murders, coverups, and conspiracies that go all the way to the top. Very well done. Anna Torv, besides having a great name, is very appealing and, as we know from her time on Fringe, she can carry a show. Jacki Weaver plays a scary character, as only she can.

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The Sinner – Seasons one & two are on Netflix, the third season just wrapped on USA. We started this series this year, burned through first two seasons, and loved it. I’m less sure about the third. It’s still very good, especially Bill Pullman as the police detective, but I found it disturbing in ways I didn’t like.

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The Stranger (Netflix) – Excellent thriller. This is yet another series based on a book by crime novelist Harlan Coben. As usual in this type of story, there are many twists and turns and much misdirection on the way to the end.

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Trapped – Two seasons on Amazon Prime – a great cop show set in Iceland. This is one of the best series we’ve seen, either last year or this. Great cast and characters.

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True Detective – (HBO)  The first season of True Detective, with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, was fantastic and set a very high bar. Most people didn’t like the second season. I was one of the few who did, though it clearly wasn’t on the level of the first. This third season hasn’t received much love either. Shuttling three different time periods, it unravels a story heavy with gloom. Very noir. Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff are excellent. Plus it has one hell of a shootout in episode five, which you can see in the following clip.

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Unbelievable – Netflix mini-series. This is excellent! A young rape victim in Seattle isn’t believed, then two female detectives in Colorado get involved. Kaitlin Dever (Justified and Booksmart) is the rape victim; Toni Collette and Merritt Wever are the cops. Very detailed and takes its time.

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Unforgotten – Three seasons have aired on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery and are now  available on Amazon Prime. Cop unit in the UK finds old cases thought to have been solved, but new evidence reveals the truths that have been buried. The great Nicola Walker (Last Tango in Halifax) is head of the team, with Sanjeev Bhaskar as her partner. Both are excellent.

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Unorthodox – (Netflix)  Over four episodes this show tells the story of a young, unhappy bride in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She gets the courage to escape this world and goes to Berlin to find her mother and start a new life. Shira Haas is both inspiring and heartbreaking as the main character, Esty.

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The Valhalla Murders (Netflix) – More cops in Iceland. Another layered narrative with tragic dimensions. Very good.

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Veep – (HBO) The seventh and final season. Since the 2016 presidential election (shudder), the challenge of this excellent political satire has been to keep moving the narrative forward in ways that seem fresh. The current administration in the White House is a farce and satire in reality, so it’s hard for a show like Veep to stay ahead of that. But it does a good job, and this season was a fitting end to a great series.

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Vera – Ten seasons on Amazon Prime/Acorn/BritBox. Yet another cop show from the UK, this one with Brenda Blethyn as the prickly head of a team in Halifax. Excellent! We discovered it last year and burned through the nine seasons then available one after the other. Have now seen the tenth, which became available earlier this year. Each season is four episodes of approximately 90 minutes each. Vera is quite a character.

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What We Do in the Shadows –  The first season is available on Amazon Prime, the second kicked off on FX on April 15. I love this show. A small group of vampires share a house on Staten Island. They have the usual domestic problems. As with The Office, an unseen film crew is ostensibly shooting a documentary, which allows for direct-to-camera commentary by the characters. Very black, deadpan comedy. 

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When They See Us – (Netflix)  A very powerful account of the young African-American men who became known as the Central Park Five. They were wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a white jogger in Central Park. The series, directed by Ava Duvernay, follows the story from the night of the attack to their eventual exoneration after years in prison. It’s another sad commentary on race and injustice in this country.

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That’s all for now. See you next time. Stay strong. — Ted Hicks

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