Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Great Movies II

Roger Ebert – The Great Movies II

I believe that Roger Ebert wrote a total of four volumes of his “Great Movies” series.  I’ve only read the first two.  My initial impression after completing the second volume is that the movies included here are nowhere near the caliber of the films featured in his first volume. It seems as though he’s really scraping. How he managed to put out two more volumes after this is a bit shocking to me. I’m not, by any means, an expert in films, but his choices to include such films as “Say Anything”, “Being There”, and “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” seem odd inclusions for such a retrospective.  I enjoyed all three of those movies.  But “Great”???

I should also point out that out of the 100 movies chosen for this edition, I’ve seen about 15 of them. To be fair, I’m not really a lover of the cinema, but I’m guessing the average layman that enjoys going to the movies probably hasn’t seen most of these movies either.  Ebert includes a lot of old films, a lot of foreign films, a lot of out-of-print films, and a lot of “art” films. By “art” films, I refer to movies that critics seem to love, but that tend to go over the heads of 99% of your average movie goer.

As much as I dislike visual arts though (I simply don’t have the patience to sit still and watch a screen for 90 minutes straight, let alone twice that long), I’ve always enjoyed reading Roger Ebert’s articles about movies. It sounds a bit demeaning to say that the man “watched movies for a living”, but that moniker shouldn’t be viewed negatively when applied to someone such as Roger Ebert.  Since the man watched virtually every movie in existence during his lifetime (and many of the “great” movies, multiple times), he had the ability to study film as a work of art, and could dissect and observe things that the average movie goer could not. Whether or not you agreed with him, it was always very interesting to see his observations and reflections about a particular film.

Which is essentially the point of these books. He takes movies that he thinks are “great”, and within the essays, shares his thoughts and reasons as to why the particular movie was, in fact, great. I would imagine, for example, that the average millennial would get quickly turned off by any movie pre-1970, but Ebert, being an astute student, can share exactly why movies as old as 100 years were, in fact, revolutionary for their time. Consider for example “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”.  Most adults and children of today that were raised on Pixar films would easily fall asleep after enduring such a film after 30 minutes.  But when it was released in 1934 as the first ever animated full-length feature, there were elements that were so breathtaking and original, that it’s easy to see that we may never could have evolved to films such as “Toy Story” or “Finding Nemo” without such a blueprint.

I also confess that after reading several of these essays, I was tempted to find and watch the films since Ebert does such a good job piquing your interest (sadly, most are unavailable on streaming services such as Netflix, so I was unable to do so).  I would consider this book by Ebert a “must” for serious lovers of film, but I also imagine the casual audience can find much to enjoy as well.

The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo

The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo – by Walter Lord

I recently saw the movie (newly released when I wrote this review) titled “Dunkirk” and didn’t think too highly of it. It was well made, but the focus was too narrow and didn’t paint a broad enough picture from an historical perspective. I almost felt the opposite of this book. There almost seemed to be too much here.

What’s missing from this book though (and the movie) is why and how Dunkirk happened. Being that the event happened so long ago, I wouldn’t think most would be familiar of how the German army surprised everybody by burrowing through the Ardennes Forrest into France catching everyone off guard back in the Spring of 1940.  There was nowhere for the English and French (who, even though war was declared several months prior, were still new to the actual battlefield) to go but north, and they could only run as far north as the English Channel. They were basically trapped.

There is a lot of info packed into this thing from a personal perspective. The author obviously interviewed as many people involved as possible and includes brief snippets of all their stories. The soldiers (English, French, German, Belgian), the civilians, the private vessel owners, etc. and all of them get their 15 minutes of fame in this book. It’s rewarding to read about so many unique experiences, but it does get a bit overwhelming at times. One almost wishes that Walter Lord would have cut the personal stories by about 75% and told longer tales by fewer people. Or, better yet, maybe keep everything here, but not necessarily give us the names of every character involved. Sure, it’s great to see one’s name in print, but it tends to bog down the experience a tad. It’s simply a bit too much.

Another challenge, for me at least, is that I read this on a Kindle. It saddens me that older books never transition that well to the electronic format in terms of illustrations and maps. Having maps for a book such as this is crucial. Oddly, when one tilts the Kindle horizontally to be able to better read the map, the illustration shifts 90 degrees as well. So the only way to read the maps in this e book are to keep the kindle straight while aligning your head sideways.  Looks and feels uncomfortable.

I’m griping an awful lot here, but these gripes really are minor. This book is a good detailed account of the week or so where the soldiers were stranded on the beach while the British government was doing everything to rescue as many people as possible.  When one looks at how the circumstances all lined up, you can truly say that the event was literally a miracle.  Had a few of these events (weather, an abundance of private vessels, Herman Goering’s ego, etc.) been slightly skewed, Dunkirk could have easily been a catastrophe that very well could have lost the war for the allies.

The author also does a splendid job varying the viewpoints. We see the event from all different perspectives – friend and foe, military and civilian, and it’s easy to come away with a strong perception of how many of the events actually happened.

I’ve never read anything else by this author, but apparently this type of narrative (recounting tragic events) is a strong suit of his.  I would recommend the book, but I would briefly brush up on the history a few weeks prior to when the story actually takes place.

Blood and Money

Blood and Money - by Thomas Thompson

When Steven Spielberg signed up to direct the movie Jaws, he read the novel as part of his preparation. He then came away with an astute observation. The book, he stated, made the majority of the characters so unlikable, that you ended up rooting for the shark.  I felt that way a bit after reading this gruesome, sad, true-story. I had a very hard time liking any of the characters.

The center of this true story is Ash Robinson. Ash is an ambitious, wealthy oil man who finds his niche in the city of Houston, Texas during the oil boom of the 1930s and 1940s. This is a man who does not suffer fools gladly, and you get the impression that he would step on his mother’s neck if he could make a quick buck doing so. Ash and his wife can’t have children, so around this time, they adopt a (some say Ash’s illegitimate) baby girl. The little girl’s name is Joan. Ash becomes mightily smitten, and spoils her mightily.

Living in the uppity River Oaks subdivision (where the richest of the rich live in Houston), Joan, not surprisingly becomes a bit of a spoiled brat. With her rich Daddy doting all over her, she’s soon becomes an expert at horse riding and quickly amasses a room full of trophies and ribbons as she grows into adulthood. After one competition, Joan and Ash are repulsed that she only wins second place, and she throws her ribbon in disgust at a hotel porter.  In addition to being very rich, she’s also quite attractive, so she finds herself being courted by a bunch of young rich men that are drawn to her despite her filthy mouth and chain smoking tendencies.  Her first two marriages quickly fail, yet one gets the impression this is because wealthy Ash doesn’t want to share his trophy daughter with other men, and interferes quite heavily. Such is the life of the rich and famous.

And then she meets John Hill. John is a young up and coming plastic surgeon.  Living the life of the rich and famous is just what such an ambitious young man needs to further his career.  Soon Joan and John are married. At this point, Joan now becomes a victim with John taking center stage as a bizarre, off-the-wall manipulator.  The marriage falters after a few years. Almost overnight, Joan goes from being slightly sick to becoming deathly ill. By the time Joan is taken to the hospital, she’s dead.

For obvious reasons, Ash is convinced that his monster son-in-law killed his beloved girl, and a man with this much power and clout will stop at nothing to bring about a murder conviction. At this point in the narrative, the story has the appeal of a Peyton Place drama, but once the detective work and murder trials begin, the book does get a bit bogged down with too many details. Despite much of the evidence, John is never convicted of killing his wife. His new wife, Anne, is a bit of a weird-duck, and seems almost as unstable as the rest of these bananas. Anne and John’s marriage goes off the rails as well, and she testifies that John told her that he actually did kill Joan.  Hearsay and proof are two different things, however.

So then John moves onto wife #3. Things finally seem to be going well, until they come home from a vacation and find an intruder in their house who shoots and kills John.  A random act of violence?  Or a ticked-off wealthy father-in-law hiring an assassin to get revenge?  Here’s where the narrative again changes.  Now, the focus on the book is finding John’s killer who managed to escape the scene of the crime.

As the case progresses, we find ourselves no longer within the sheltered wealthy community of River Oaks, and instead, immersed in a world of prostitutes, pimps, runaways, and drug addicts. Good detective work finds the people who actually pulled the trigger, but then they (and we) want to know ‘why’.  In other words, “Was Ash Robinson behind this?”

So we then proceed to a long, lengthy trial where the author seems to relive every single detail of the trial and the alleged connection. Again, the story is good, but it almost feels like we’ve moved on from Peyton Place to a rerun of Law and Order.

I felt this was a very satisfying read, albeit a tragic one. I was reminded again how having gobs of money can never make anyone truly happy. Even without the murders and deaths, you’re left to believe that the people, had they lived, would have had a very shallow existence.   This book was the rage in Houston when it was released in 1976 (about 7 or 8 years after the incidents occurred), and it might not have the same appeal now that it’s been 40 years later, but it’s still a very good, yet sad read.

NOTE: John Hill’s second wife Anne actually wrote an account about John and Joan several years after this book was released. The book was much more cookie-cutter, but I read it as a 15-year-old for a High School Civics class, and I found it very good as well. That book was called “Prescription Murder” and is since out of print, but one might find it with some digging. Unlike this book that tends to paint Anne as loopy as a loon, you definitely don’t feel that way about her after reading her own account. Strangely, she seems to hint that John, being a plastic surgeon, faked his death, received extensive cosmetic surgery, and ended up moving to Mexico incognito. There was even a television mini-series based on the book called “Murder in Texas” starring Andy Griffith and Farrah Fawcett.