Category Archives: History

Where The Wild Things Are

Leo DiCaprio is an unstoppable force of nature in ‘The Revenant’

The Revenant

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Domnhall Gleason

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

R

Had a tough week? Well, chances are your tales of woe won’t stack up very high against Hugh Glass, the 19th century American frontiersman portrayed by Leo DiCaprio in The Reverent. In the course of this rip-roaring winter wilderness tale, Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear, buried alive, attacked by Indians, swept into the rapids of a freezing river and chased—atop his galloping horse—off a high cliff.

“I ain’t afraid to die anymore,” he says at one point. “I done it already.”

Glass eats birds, raw fish, bison guts and moose marrow, and de-bowels an animal carcass to crawl inside, naked, for a cold night’s sleep.

DiCaprio’s already received a 2016 Golden Globe award and a Critics’ Choice acting prize for his visceral, punishingly physical performance, and The Revenant took other top Golden Globes for its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and for best motion picture drama. Now it’s headed for the Oscars in late February, and buzz is building about how this year and this movie could be the one to finally net Leo his first Academy Award.

Based on a 2002 novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant is a gritty, brutal tale of tragedy, betrayal, survival, endurance, violence and vengeance. (Its title means someone who has returned, especially from the dead.) It begins as Glass, an experienced wilderness guide, and the hunting expedition he’s been hired to lead are ambushed by Arikara Indians somewhere near what is modern-day South Dakota. In a magnificent, sweeping sequence that’s like Saving Private Ryan only with bows and arrows, most of the party is mowed down in mud by a river; Glass and several others escape, including his young, half-Indian son.

Tom Hardy (right) and Will Poulter

And troubles are just beginning—especially for Glass. In one of the film’s most harrowing sequences, a bear mauls him almost to death when he comes between her and her cubs. He gets no sympathy from the vicious, greedy Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who considers Glass dead weight and thinks they’d all be better off if he was put out of his misery.

Fitzgerald also doesn’t care very much, either, for Glass’ son, whose mother—Glass’ Pawnee wife—was killed in a raid by American cavalrymen.

Fitzgerald’s dastardly deed sets the rest of the movie in motion, and director Iñárritu—who last year won acclaim and awards for Birdman—makes the stark, inhospitable desolation of the frontier (much of the filming was done in Alberta, British Columbia) look stunning, lyrical and often beautiful as Glass claws his way back to “civilization,” like an unstoppable force of nature, seeking the man who robbed him of the only thing he had left.

This is a raw, richly elemental movie. The screen swells with earth, air, sky and water. You don’t just watch it, you feel it—the cold, the wet, the pain, and the primal emotions that drive the characters. At times you almost lose DiCaprio beneath his gnarly beard and matted hair, and there are long stretches where the only sounds are grunts, growls, whoops or howls. Trees figure prominently into symbolism and hallucinogenic dream sequences. There’s a strong underlying message about America’s indigenous peoples, their mistreatment and the exploitation of America’s resources.

It’s strong stuff, and won’t be everyone’s cup of frontier stew. But if you’d like a reminder of just how “wild” the western wilderness really was—just how much will, resources and resolve it took to survive in it—The Revenant serves up a spectacularly jarring, frequently jolting dose.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Thar She Blows

‘In The Heart of the Sea’ is one whopper of a whale tale

HEART OF THE SEA

In the Heart of the Sea

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson & Tom Holland

Directed by Ron Howard

PG-13

No one who’s read Moby-Dick can forget when the stunned first mate, spying the great white whale for the first time, turns to captain Ahab, like he’s just seen a ghost. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” he informs him.

No, wait—I’m confusing my culture and my pop culture. It’s easy to do. Director Ron Howard kinda-sorta mixes it up a bit, too, in telling the story of the (true) story that inspired author Herman Melville to write the (fictional) story that became the (familiar) story we all know as the biggest, baddest whale tale of all time.

Ben Whishaw as budding novelist Herman Melville

In the Heart of the Sea begins with a young Melville (Ben Whishaw, who plays gadget-master Q in the new James Bond movies) coming to visit crusty Tom Nickerson (veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson). The fledgling writer wants to coax from the old salt the truth about a doomed whaling ship, the Essex, its encounter with a legendary monster from the deep—an alabaster-white demon of a whale—and the adrift-at-sea horrors endured by the surviving members of the crew before they were finally rescued.

Chris Hemsworth

Nickerson was an orphaned lad (played by Tom Holland) when he shipped out on the Essex, to which we’re introduced as the movie switches into flashback mode as it prepares set sail in 1820. The capable Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) was promised he’d be put in charge, but a squeeze on whale-oil supply-and-demand pressure Essex company men to appoint their benefactor’s under-qualified, over- gentrified son, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), as captain. So Chase reluctantly signs on as first mate, promising his pregnant wife (Michelle Fairley) he’ll be home soon—maybe a year instead of two, in 19th century whaling terms.

Once the Essex hits the open water, the movie hits its stride—especially if you’re a fan of old-fashioned seafaring-adventure epics. The heavy canvas of the sails swells with the wind; ropes whip, whap and whoosh; metal clangs; swarthy men holler, hustle and clamber; and, of course, there’s water, water everywhere.

The whaling scenes are special-effect marvels. Howard melds the rush of adrenalized excitement, the ever-present, life-or-death danger, and the existential melancholy of slaying such magnificent creatures to provide oil to “fuel the machines of industry and move our great nation forward,” as a clergyman prays.

And heaven forbid you get stuck with blowhole-reaming detail.

When the gigantic white whale finally makes an appearance, well, it’s very bad news. And then things just keep going from bad to worse, to unspeakable.

It’s hard to look at Chris Hemsworth and not see Thor, the movie role with which he’s most associated, especially when the drama takes a deep, desperate dive into darker places. (Forget the harpoon—just break out your hammer, dude!) It’s hard not to sympathize with, or root for the whales, after seeing them impaled and bloodied with iron toggles, spikes and spires, and knowing that some of them have now been hunted now to near extinction.

And it’s impossible to miss the movie’s undertone, which eventually becomes its overtone: Yesterday’s whale oil is today’s petroleum, and humans are still driven to the ends of Earth to get it. Howard’s history-based high-seas yarn has a contemporary message about hubris, greed and resource exploitation that resonates today by land or by sea.

“We are kings, circumventing the globe,” boasts captain Pollard. “To bend nature is our right.” His first mate disagrees—we are but mere “specks,” Chase counters, compared to the vastness of the world, the unfathomable mysteries of the sea, and the monstrous majesty of a creature that can smash a ship into splinters.

They really do need a bigger boat—and sometimes, don’t we all?

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Marching Across Time

‘Selma’ connects past and present at pivotal civil rights flashpoint

SELMA

David Oyelowo (second from left) stars as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘Selma’

Selma

Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo & Tom Wilkinson

Directed by Ava DuVernay

PG-13

It depicts events that happened half a century ago, but the drumbeat—and the heartbeat—of the present pounds loud and clear in Selma.

Set in the weeks leading up to March 1965, it’s a moving, powerful portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King and his passionate work to turn back the toxic tide of segregation and discrimination against African-Americans, especially in the South.

British actor David Oyelowo does a phenomenal job as King, conveying the combustive cocktail of faith, focus, outrage, diplomacy and drive that fueled his mission leading up to the “peaceful protest” marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to bring national attention to voting rights. His King is no martyred saint, but a charismatic, pragmatic leader who can take sit-down meetings with the President in the White House, as well as a husband, father and family man trying to keep his own “house” from crumbling from pressures inside and out.

SELMA

Carmen Ejogo plays King’s wife, Coretta.

A scene in which King’s wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, also terrific), confronts him over his well-known infidelities is a masterfully staged, perfectly written and expertly performed moment in which the silence becomes as important as—and even more weighty than—the words.

SELMA

Oprah Winfrey plays a civil rights activist.

The protests at the heart of the movie may have been “nonviolent,” but the event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, March 7, was an episode of horrific, horrendous brutality, as hundreds of marchers were attacked by state and local police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with tear gas, clubs wrapped in barbed wire, and horsewhips. Director Ava DuVernay, a former Hollywood publicist who worked her way up through the studio system via music documentaries and indie films, depicts the one-sided confrontation as a melee of swirling smoke, raining blows, sickening thuds and crumbling bodies.

King is the movie’s central figure, but note that it doesn’t bear his name. It’s about more than the man; it’s about the movement he inspired. And specifically, it’s about how the crucial flashpoint of that movement came at one moment in time, in one specific place, and that place was Selma.

And, appropriately, there’s a big supporting cast that helps get it there, including Tom Wilkinson as Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson; Tim Roth as Alabama Gov. George Wallace; Oprah Winfrey as activist Annie Lee Cooper; Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover; Ledici Young as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; and numerous other actors, including Martin Sheen, rapper Common, Stephen Root, Niecy Nash, Cuba Gooding Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Andrè Holland, Stephan James and Wendell Pierce, portraying other real-life players in the drama.

SELMA

King meets in the White House with Pres. Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

The filmmakers didn’t have access to King’s archive of speeches, so his orations are paraphrased—to magnificent effect. And there have been questions and quibbles about the movie’s authenticity and precise historical accuracy, especially about its portrayal of King’s relationship with L.B.J. But leave the parsing of small details to small minds. As the 50th anniversary of the events depicted in Selma approaches, this big-issue movie—with policemen beating and killing unarmed black men, streets filled with peaceful protesters, and repressive voting laws that disenfranchise minorities—feels chillingly contemporary, all too real, and monumental in more ways than one. Selma profoundly reminds us that while the marching may lead to the mountaintop, we still, sadly, haven’t fully made it there yet.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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All-American Hero

Angelina Jolie tells Louis Zamperini’s story of survival and inspiration

Unbroken 4

Unbroken

Starring Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara & Domnhall Gleeson

Directed by Angelina Jolie

PG-13

 

As far as real-life, all-American heroes go, they don’t get any red, white and bluer than Louis Zamperini, the U.S. Olympic runner, World War II bombardier and prisoner-of-war survivor whose amazing story was told in author Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling 2010 book, Unbroken.

Now Angelina Jolie, making her second theatrical outing behind the camera as a director, brings Hillenbrand’s book to the screen in a grandiose dramatization of Zamperini’s epic ordeal during the war, with flashbacks to his rascally boyhood in Torrence, Calif., his surprising success as a high-school track star, and his wide-eyed trip to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Unbroken 5The movie begins with a bang—quite literally—as we’re taken inside the belly of a B24 bomber, alongside Zamperini (Irish actor Jack O’Connell) and his crew mates as they crack jokes, then crack down and delivering their goods, fend off a fierce attack by Japanese Zeros and finally bring their badly damaged plane in for a very rough landing. A later mission sets up the dire circumstances that put Zamperini and two of his fellow crewmen (Domnhall Gleeson and Finn Whitrock) adrift in life rafts and finally into the hands of Japanese captors.

Zamperini (who died earlier in 2014, at age 97) would spend more than two years in Pacific prison and work camps, and the heart of the movie is the torment he received from a young, terrifying prison warden called “the Bird” (Japanese singer-songwriter Takamasa Ishihara, making his acting debut), whose soft, “feminine” appearance masked a grotesque sadism.

O’Connell gives a tremendous, star-making performance, transforming his entire physicality to depict the ravages of his ever-worsening conditions. Ishihara is galvanizing in an unforgettable “bad guy” role that hints of much more complexity and ambiguity than the script gives him rein to fully explore.

The movie looks fantastic, thanks to the camera work of award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brings a prestigious, pedigreed master’s touch to every scene: the danger—and the excitement—in the air; the desolation, desperation and drama of floating for weeks the ocean;Unbroken 3 the soul-sucking abominations of the prisons, where days and months seep into years.

The script—whose unlikely collaborators include Joel and Ethan Cohen, not typically known for such un-cynical, snark-free, drama—focuses a lot (perhaps too much) on suffering, agony and endurance, and not enough on just how, exactly, Zamperini came to circle back on the words of a sermon we watch him squirming through, as a boy: “Love thy enemy.”

One sequence depicts a weakened, starved and beaten “Louie” forced by the Bird to pick up a heavy wooden beam and hold it above his head for what the movie ticks off to feel like hours. Jolie presents it like a scene from The Passion of the Christ. That incident may very well have happened, but making Zamperini look like a saint—or more—seems like unnecessary sermonizing.

He wasn’t a saint, but he certainly was a great, inspiring man. And now his legacy includes a handsome movie monument to remind even more people of his service, his sacrifice and the incredible reserves of strength and resolve he used to keep his will, his faith, his courage and his call of duty to his country “unbroken.”

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Bat Man

Dracula Untold

Misguided Dracula mash-up has few teeth, even less bite

Dracula Untold

Starring Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper & Sarah Gadon

Directed by Gary Shore

PG-13

Dracula, the world’s most famous vampire, has spread all across the pop-cultural spectrum, from Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel and actor Bela Lugosi, to goofball cartoons and the inspiration for chocolate breakfast cereal. Historically, he’s been linked—at least in name—to the 15th century Romanian ruler Vlad III, “the Impaler,” whose grotesque signature touch was decorating the Balkan countryside with the writhing bodies of his enemies stuck on poles.

This misguided monster mash of a movie tries to bring the two legends together, in a tale that seems like a 90-minute episode of TV’s Game of Thrones garnished with lots of computer-generated bats.

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Luke Evans and Sarah Gadon

We meet Vlad (Luke Evans, a “days of yore” veteran of two Hobbit movies, Immortals, Clash of the Titans and The Three Musketeers, plus Fast and Furious 6) after his “impaling” days are over and he’s settled down as a benevolent monarch, carving out a kingdom and making peace with the neighboring Turks that were once his favorite Pinterest subjects. But when pushed again toward an unjust war, he makes a desperate deal to protect his castle, his people, his wife and his son.

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Charles Dance from TV’s ‘Game of Thrones’ places an ancient vampire.

That “deal” is the back story of how Vlad became count Dracula, and it involves an encounter in a bat-filled cave with an ancient über-vampire (Charles Dance from Game of Thrones), who offers him a “test drive” of supernatural powers—with a devil of a catch-22. If Vlad can last three days without feeding on human blood, all is well. If not, he’ll become an undead bloodsucker for eternity.

Vlad’s new powers include super-strength, super-speed, super-hearing, super-sight, and the ability to summon bats, control bats, become a swarm of bats, or un-become a swarm of bats.

One of the movie’s major misfires is trying to meld “historical” Vlad into “mythical” Dracula. It just doesn’t work—the handsome Evans makes his character seem way too nice to ever be convincing as someone who terrorizes his opponents by putting them up on pikes by the thousands. First-time director Gary Shore never finds the right tone—be it frightful, funny, funky, horrifying, shocking or sexy—that viewers would expect from a modern flick about the most neck-fetish-ed, nocturnal daddy-o of them all. The whole production looks pieced together from murky videogame graphics, cable-TV soundstage sets and leftover Lord of the Rings costumes.

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The mostly British cast also includes Dominic Cooper (from Captain America: The First Avenger), Zach McGowan (TV’s Black Sails), Sarah Gadon, and young Art Parkinson (another import from Game of Thrones). The movie ends with a couple of jarring leaps, one of them into what’s reportedly intended to be the beginning of a new modernized “monster squad” franchise based on the iconic beasties of Universal Studios, which also includes the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster.

“Sometimes the world no longer needs a hero,” says Vlad. “Sometime it needs a monster.” And sometimes it needs a monster movie—hopefully one with a bit more bite than this one.

 —Neil Pond, Parade and American Profile Magazines

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Not-So-Simpler Times

Re-examining the era of James Dean, ‘Ozzie & Harriet,’ & ‘I Love Lucy’

The Forgotten Fifties_cover

The Forgotten Fifties

By James Conaway

Hardcover, 224 pages, $45 (Skira Rizzoli)

From the pages and archives of LOOK magazine, a publication that defined the Fifties in images and words, comes this handsome photographic celebration of the complicated, often contradictory era that transformed America’s identity through an unprecedented confluence of socio-economics, culture and politics at the end of World War II. With 200 color and black and white photos, it’s a chronological museum of memories charting the ups and downs of a nation as it finds its way through the often mixed signals of Ozzie and Harriet and I Love Lucy, John F. Kennedy, James Dean, Disneyland, suburban prosperity, urban slums and other touchstones from an era that wasn’t quite as simple as it might seem.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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WWI in Photos

The many ways photography became a factor in first “great war”

The Great War

The Great War—The Persuasive Power of Photography

Edited By Ann Thomas / Text by Ann Thomas & Anthony Petiteau

Hardcover, 142 pages $45 (Abrams)

 

The first “great war” was a turning point for many things, and one of them was the use of photography, as both and Allied forces and their enemies employed the technology to spy, strategize, communicate, commemorate, manipulate, stir up public support for the cause, and record events for posterity. This collection of images, along with a well-researched historical narrative about the many ways photography factored into both sides of the conflict, both on the battlefields and at home, is a fascinating look at how “media” shaped the world’s perception of events long before 24-hour news came along.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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War All Over

A round-up of HISTORY programs commemorates WWI centennial

100 Years of WWI100 Years of World War I

DVD $14.98 (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)

The first “war of mass destruction,” harnessing new powers of weaponry, technology and telecommunications in ways that had never been done—or seen—before, left 15 million dead, 20 million injured and changed the world’s perception of battle forever. Packaging together four HISTORY channel programs, including a new multi-part mini-series, this comprehensive roundup commemorates the centennial of America’s game-changing entry into global warfare with more than five hours of expert interviews, info gleaned from eyewitness accounts and high-tech re-creations.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Rain Man

Russell Crowe stars in Biblical flood epic with splashes of sci-fi

NoahNoah

Blu-ray $39.99, DVD $29.99 (Paramount Home Media)

 

Russell Crowe stars as the Old Testament’s most famous survivalist in director Darren Aronofsky’s dazzling, big-screen adaptation of the Biblical flood epic, which deviates a bit from anything you might have studied in Sunday School—unless I somehow missed the Sundays we talked the giant talking rock angels. But it’s quite an eye-popping spectacle of drama, special effects and storytelling in its own right, and it offers plenty of food for thought. Extras include behind-the-scenes featurettes, including an on-location look at filming in Iceland, and creating the movie’s thematic centerpiece—the colossal arc—inside and out.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Red, White & Snoopy

Charlie Brown & Co. reanimate American history highlights

This Is America, Charlie Brown

This is America, Charlie Brown

DVD, $26.99 (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)

Originally airing in 1988 as an eight-part CBS miniseries, this delightful animated roundup of recently remastered 24-minute TV specials features a crash course in American history as Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus and the rest of the beloved Peanuts gang sail on the Mayflower, discuss the U.S. Constitution, watch the Wright brothers take wing at Kitty Hawk, dream of space travel, meet several presidents, explore the roots of American music and its composers, and bring other red, white and blue milestones to educational and entertaining cartoon life.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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