Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2015 08: Field of Lost Shoes (2013)

Field of Lost ShoesThis was recommended to us by a commenter months, maybe years ago. But we finally got around to watching it. And you should, too. It’s a serious attempt to tell a true story of the Civil War, a remarkable human interest story. The story is that of the Battle of Newmarket in Virginia in 1864, and one of the most unusual units to as ever turn the tide of the battle: the Corps of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute . These were young men and boys from about age 15 to about age 21.

While this story has risen to the level of legend among the graduates of the Institute, it’s a story of the Civil War worth learning, whether you have any connection at all to either side of that conflict.

Acting and Production

Field-of-Lost-Shoes_boys

The young unknowns who play the cadets do perfectly well, and they’re supported by a cast that includes a wide range of talents: Civil War reenactors, actual VMI cadets, two seasoned professionals. In the latter category , Keith David has the institute’s slave baker, “Old Judge”; Tom Skerritt, as US Grant; and Jason Isaacs, as Confederate Gen. Breckenridge, stand out. Isaacs gets the line of the movie: “Send in the boys… and may God have mercy on my soul.”

They apparently extended their budget by a trick that we’ve seen war-film makers use in several other independent films, using reenactors. That said, the film seldom feels budget-cramped; perhaps when very similar locations and sets are used for various Confederate and Union field camps (indeed, it feels like one location and set, superficially re-dressed for each scene). Where a lot of money needs to be put on the screen for the viewer to see, it has been done.

VMI_cadets_at_NewMarket

The command position’s difficulty of observation during a Civil War battle was made quite clear.

Any costume, period drama is a hard thing for filmmakers to plan and shoot, the Civil War being a particular bear. There is some anachronistic language and mores, but not overwhelmingly so; by and large they hold to the language and attitudes you would expect from martial caste Americans of the mid-19th Century.

One prelude scene shows a young son of a privileged gentleman getting himself a bit of an education about slavery, by watching a slave auction. He had just been telling his father that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly nonsense, because he didn’t know anyone that

The scene rings true, despite the unlikelihood of the situation they try to sell later, in which a group of young Virginians of 1863-4 are all morally opposed to slavery. If a character in a modern movie were to express the attitude of the average denizen of the 1860s towards black men, viewers would be outraged. On the other hand, the simple faith of many of the rank and file as well as the leaders does get a fair showing.

Field-of-Lost-Shoes_prayer

The DVD includes a making-of featurette and one on the way the Institute and its Cadets memorialize the heroes of New Market.  The sound levels on the featurettes are much higher than that on the movie itself.

Accuracy and Weapons

The use of weapons seems about right, and the weapons used by both the Union and Rebel troops seem about right. They do not downplay the smoke of the field much, compared to other Civil War films.

In one incredible scene that we’re guessing was CGI or superimposition, you can see the cannonball exit a Union cannon. Amazing! The actual assault is done, as you might expect in an era of slow-loading rifle-muskets, with empty rifles merely serving as handles for cold steel.

field-of-lost-shoes-charge

The bottom line

The Field of Lost Shoes is a must for former VMI grads and Civil War buffs, the best-informed of whom can probably find nits to pick with it. We enjoyed it, and thought it a good balance of realism and plot. The stories of cadets like Thomas G. Jefferson, John Wise, Moses Ezekiel and their friends deserve wider respect, beyond the VMI alum network. This movie tells the story with art and without artifice; it is endearing in its earnestness.

field-of-lost-shoes-march

We respect heroism around here, whether it’s in service of a good cause or ill, it deserves recognition of its own right. History would write that the Rebel cause was both wrong, and doomed; let history also record that the Rebels (and the Yanks) fought their hearts out, in a cause that they believed was right, and that they wouldn’t admit was doomed, even to themselves. Ave atque vale. 

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Field-Lost-Shoes-Jason-Issac/dp/B00NMYL93I/

Also available in Instant Video:

http://www.amazon.com/Field-Lost-Shoes-Lauren-Holly/dp/B00N1Q4UNS/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2477218/

  • IMFDB page: (none)
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (40%, rotten):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/field_of_lost_shoes/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Field_of_Lost_Shoes

 

Amazon’s TV Series Decisions: yes to High Castle, no to Cocked

Man_High_Castle_(TV_Series)_mapJust a brief note on this breaking news:

Amazon has made its call on which of its series it will order for a full season. Of the two series we reviewed, the atmospheric The Man in the High Castle, an alt-history where the Germans and Japanese won WWII and occupied the USA, based on a Philip K. Dick novel, is going forward to production; the uneven Cocked, which featured stars Jason Lee and Brian Dennehy in a show about a dysfunctional family in the firearms industry.

The Man in the High Castle was, they say, the most watched pilot Amazon ever put up. We reviewed it here. We know Tam and Bobbi will be excited about this, if nobody else is (and clearly, from the response, a lot of somebody-elses are).

Hollywood being Hollywood, even the Silicon Valley version, they have nothing to say about the shows that didn’t continue, but you can read our review of Cocked here. Now that the decision is made, we’re a little sorry the story of Paxson Firearms came to an end, but then, we know from Alpha House where Amazon was going to take it, so it’s probably better off on Fiddler’s Green.

They also greenlit the achingly dull and crushingly boring award-bait documentary series The New Yorker Presents, an alleged comedy about middle-aged losers, Mad Dogs, and two pretty derivative shows for small children, one animated.

Joining Cocked in oblivion are Down Dog, “a satirical look at LA’s yoga culture” (we didn’t watch), Point of Honor, a laughably ahistorical historical drama about a family of Confederates who have morals from the future (they’re opposed to slavery; the “young ladies” are foulmouthed slatterns; they’re anti-smoking; we lasted maybe 8 minutes), Salem Rogers, a show about the travails of a washed-up fashion model (didn’t watch), and four more kiddie shows.

The Amazon Press Release is at this link.

Saturday Matinee 2015 07: BAT-21 (1988)

BAT-21 DVDThis movie was based on a popular non-fiction book that hit the racks in the 1980s, one of several books about heroic Vietnam experiences that delighted the public, as a backlash took hold against the media-mythologized image of the no-good Vietnam vet. But “based on” gets tortured pretty badly between book and screen; IMDB calls it a “fact-based war drama,” and we all know what that means. Now, they didn’t make the protagonist a conflicted war criminal or anthing; in fact, most of the changes the writers (a team practically as big as Glenn Miller’s Band, judging from the credits, never a good sign) and director Peter Markle made, made their adventure story less interesting than the real adventured of USAF Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton.

And their efforts towards accuracy were, to be blunt, pathetic. You can imagine the dialogue in planning conferences: “It was an airplane, so show a picture of an airplane, or get one to fly over. Any airplane — they all look the same to me.” And what about the Vietnamese characters, or, really, extras? “All Asians look alike to us, so just get some generic Orientals and we’re golden.” So why watch the jeezly thing? As a gateway drug to reading William C. Anderson’s and Iceal Hambleton’s book of the same title, perhaps. Or to see good performances by Gene Hackman, Danny Glover, and some supporting actors. Or just to see a movie about Vietnam in which the Americans are not defunct losers or outright villains, still a rarity in 1988 when this was released.

The original trailer plays up the Hollywood anti-war theme, but it doesn’t actually represent the movie well:

That’s what makes the movie, though: the chemistry of Hackman, playing a real character, and Glover, playing a composite one, connected by the thin thread of survival radio. In some ways they got the gestalt of a rescue operation during the 1972 Easter Offensive right, even as they botched seemingly every detail.

Acting and Production

hackman as hambletonThe actors are pros and their parts are pretty straightforward. The production tells the story simply and chronologically. This is not a juxtaposition flick, and they probably didn’t screen it at Cannes. It was a summer shoot-em-up, and made everybody involved money, and still entertains people on late-night movie channels.

The movie was made in Malaysia, whose jungle stood in well for northern South Vietnam.

Accuracy and Weapons

Oddly enough, considering how wildly and unnecessarily inaccurate the story is, the small arms in the film are fairly accurate. The NVA mostly have Chinese AKs and a Makarov pistol, check. Danny Glover’s character bails out of an emergency-landed aircraft with an M16A1, which is also the weapon carried by other American soldier characters; the helicopters have M60 door guns (check), but not mounted M60Ds, merely bungee-suspended ground 60s, as was done in 1962. Uncheck. Also, the MG the NVA shoots several helicopters down with is an M2HB.

Hambleton’s real-world survival weapon was a Smith & Wesson .38, and he didn’t kill anybody with it, or even fire it at anybody. In the film, he has a Browning Hi-Power (a not totally implausible pilot’s weapon) and he uses it with abandon. In the real world, that’s inadvisable, in the middle of the enemy’s combined-arms offensive.

hackman firing pistol

One thing that’s really true is the use of hole lengths and azimuths from the golf course of Tucson National to steer Hambleton, an avid golfer, towards safety. A similar, if cruder, code referring to the Snake River was used to steer Idahoan Clark towards water and safety; this isn’t in the movie because the script put what was really two separate evaders together.

Hambleton was rescued, all alone, by a team of one US Navy and one Vietnamese LDNN SEALs. Hundreds of men, aircraft, vehicles and ships were involved in the rescue, but in the end it came to a couple of commandos skulking in the water and along the riverbank. This dramatic reality is not present in the movie.

glover bat 21Danny Glover’s character depicts several FAC pilots; while a FAC crewman named Clark was shot down and then rescued during the Hambleton rescue, his name was not Bartholomew, but the rather more prosaic Mark. He wasn’t a nobody, though, but the grandson of WWII Army general Mark Clark. Clark did not come from a poor background. Clark did not fly a helicopter, and did not link up with Hambleton, but was rescued separately by the same SEALs (US and RVN) working for SOG-80/JPRC.

For a FAC to waltz off with a helicopter after a simple cockpit briefing… well, it’s a movie.

pilot executedThe depiction of the NVA murdering a helicopter pilot, and another helicopter pilot killing himself in a minefield, is completely fanciful, but the NVA are suspected of murdering two FAC crewmen who were in the area on an unrelated mission. (One of them, USMC 1st Lt. Larry Potts, may have been the inspiration for the filmmakers choosing a black actor to play Clark. Clark’s actual frontseater was captured alive, and repatriated in 1973).

This is a real O-2, photographed over Laos (possibly supporting SOG or Project 404) in 1970. The plane in the movie was a crude approximation.

This is a real O-2, photographed over Laos (possibly supporting SOG or Project 404) in 1970. The plane in the movie was a crude approximation.

All the aircraft are wrong. Every single one. Glover’s O-2 is a civilian Skymaster, not even cosmetically dressed as the military plane, except for a coat of paint. No gunsight, no radios (well, all-wrong civilian radio stack), no smoke rockets, nice plus civilian seats, not the web butt-torturers of the pukka O-2. Most of the FACs were flying the more-modern OV-10 at the time. The jets are Malaysian F-5s, complete with Malaysian 1980s colors and markings, and the helicopters are Malaysian Sea Kings. One short archival clip of F-100s is used — and by 1972, the F-100s were gone from Vietnam.

There was no planned B-52 raid creating artificial timeline tension in the real world: instead, B-52s were actually used as a high-risk high-payoff diversion, to strike NVA concentrations and tie up enemy assets to allow the planned SEAL water/ground rescues (two separate rescues, on two separate nights) to eventuate… one more case where the director’s and screenwriters’ decisions leeched real drama out of their canned script.

Finally, a pet peeve of ours, the explosions are all Hollywood fireballs. Does any Hollywood pyro man know how to blow up anything but gasoline? Doubtful.

The bottom line

BAT-21 is entertaining, if wildly unrealistic.  The best thing you may get from it is a determination to hunt up the real story, in several websites (this one’s a good start, and so is this) and two books. But it is 105 minutes or so of fast-moving entertainment.

The real Iceal Hambleton — who went by “Gene” to those who knew him — passed away in 2004, at the age of 85. He was a veteran of three wars: WWII, where he was still stateside at war’s end; Korea, where he flew many missions as a B-29 navigator; and Vietnam, where a decision to put himself on the flight schedule due to a navigator shortage entered his name in the history books.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Bat-21-Gene-Hackman/dp/B00004ZBVG

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094712/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/BAT*21

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (the reviewers liked it; 80% fresh. It didn’t score as well with viewers in general):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/bat_21/

  • Wikipedia  page:

 

Saturday Matinee: Edge of Tomorrow

Edge_of_Tomorrow_PosterEdge of Tomorrow illustrates the bizarre economics of Hollywood by being a $100M grossing… flop. It suffered from, among other things, customer backlash against Tom Cruise, and a marketing effort so feeble (or was it febrile?) that they have gone two ways with the movie’s title, the bland Edge of Tomorrow which signposted the film’s dusty road to box-office death, and Live Die Repeat, which has sold it in DVD and Blu-Ray. We watched it on HBO, where it is presently in rotation, but you can find it at all the usual suspects.

The movie is set in an unspecified near future where a world has had to unite to fight against an alien race, the Mimics. (Unlike some other sci-fi xenospecies, the etymology of the enemy’s name is not logical or clear). The Mimics are smarter, somehow, and they can anticipate humans’ every move. The Earth armies are to invade the European continent from England in a battle loosely modeled, by the movie makers if not their fictional generals, on Operation Overlord. It is called Operation Downfall (the real name of the planned, never-executed, invasion of Honshu). Public Affairs officer Thomas Cage (Tom Cruise in a rather deep part for an actioner) blots his copybook, and will be participating in the invasion as a freshly minted, and combat-untrained, private. Cage sees horrible sights, never gets his gear working right, whacks a Mimic leader of some type through sheer happenstance — and is violently slain.

That’s where the movie really starts to pick up. Cage is somehow reliving the day, over, and over again, and unlike everyone else, knows he’s doing it. His attempts to call others’ attention to this Kafkaesque situation meet Kafkaesque rejection. Take that, Gregor Samsa.

It turns out, the enemy has the ability to stop time and revert to a status quo ante. When the war starts going against them, they go back and replay the scenario, with the knowledge of what their enemies will do. No wonder they win. And no human understands this but Cruise’s Cage. Or are there others?

The movie is based on a Japanese “light novel,” a uniquely Japanese kind of popular novella, named All You Need is Kill. The name alarmed Warner Brothers executives, who are still dithering about the name to this day.

Acting and Production

We get that people are weirded out by Cruise’s unconventional religion and its bizarre beliefs. However, those of us who attend a church that displays a dead guy on a stick, or that believe God settled his benevolence uniquely on one tribe of scrabbling desert nomads over all the others, probably ought to lighten up the stone-throwing. It’s his right to believe whatever it is he believes, and it’s your right to make fun of him, and even boycott his films, but if you do the last, you’re missing some good entertainment.

edge of tomorrow scar

Cruise’s boyish athleticism — dang, the guy’s in his mid-fifties, and does at least some of his own stunts, no doubt to the irritation of his insurers — is exactly what the part needs. He might fall short as Jack Reacher, who’s supposed to be large and intimidating, but in this role where he’s an office-working officer thrust unwillingly into combat, he’s excellent. He clearly had fun in the role, and has been said to compare the many deaths of William Cage to those of Wile E. Coyote. (He doesn’t ever hold up an “Oh, no!” sign, but he has a way of expressing that with his face).

Other strong performances include Emily Blunt as Rita Vrtaski, the obligatory Amazon (and a very chaste source of sexual tension with Cruise, in a throwback to the sexual energy of classic movies of another day), and Bill Paxton as Master Sergeant Farrell.

The movie reminds one of video games, especially the old 1980s text variety, where The script is a stew of dozens of creatives’ efforts, and it shows: the ending in particular smells focus-grouped and unsatisfying.

Accuracy and Weapons

While the alien technology and weaponry is entirely fanciful (and can boil down to: “the bad guys get to use magic”), the near-future equipment of the humans is at least plausible. Forerunners of the combat exoskeletons have indeed been subject to experimentation, and the quad tiltrotor, while a Hollywood creation with too little lift for too much weight, and an illogically redundant use of both tail gate and belly doors, loosely resembles machines actually proposed by serious people.

The firearms are the least evolved thing in the movie. There is a recognizable Claymore mine (complete with the FRONT TOWARD ENEMY originally place there because of the near-illiteracy of many privates of the 1970s Army), and at one point, Cruise’s character specifies his ammunition requirements — in 5.56.

Sorry, but even in the fictional future, 6.5 fans can’t catch a break.

When Sergeant Vrtaski needs to “reset” Major-turned-Private Cage, she shoots him in the head with a SIG 226. (As a public service to all who might have a bad day and be tempted to blast the nearest actor, in the real world this does not reset time and give you a Mulligan on your day. Thank you).

edge of tomorrow sig

No one involved with the film seems to have ever had any exposure to any actual military, so what we have here is Hollywood recycling Hollywood tropes about the military. This can be painful at times: discipline is enforced by brutality, grunts are as coarse and stupid as Danny Deever, generals are callous monsters who take the shortest of breaks from throwing lives away to use the power of their rank to advance personal vendettas. It’s the Star Trek Skin Deep Diversity World goes to war, and it hits many of Hollywood’s favorite themes, including the bumbling man/domineering women so beloved of commercials (and commercials are where this director came from).

It’s unfortunate that people coming out of this film will think that her fictional Rita Vrtaski character is what we get when we lower standards to rush women into infantry combat, and doubly unfortunate that those gullible people will then vote for politicians similarly unexposed to military life. (Women can and do serve with courage and commitment, and have for a very long time, but the Narrative demands that we must have Amazons on the screen. Trying to adapt that to real life is only going to get people, units, and possibly countries killed).

There’s a lot of CGI in the movie, and a lot of frenetic cutting, sometimes of the “just shake the camera so they can’t see what we just did, there” variety. At least it’s generally good CGI.

The bottom line

Edge of Tomorrow deserved better than its US box-office underperformance ($100M versus $178M costs), although it unquestionably became profitable in retrospect. slight elaboration. What you’ll get from it. Smart ass closing.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Live-Die-Repeat-Tomorrow-Blu-ray/dp/B00K2CHWOI/

Note that the digital copy included with Warner Brothers releases is now the crappy proprietary ultraviolet one, with sub-YouTube, not HD, quality, and does not work at all with IOS devices.

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1631867/

  • IMFDB page:
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (they like it: 90% fresh):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/live_die_repeat_edge_of_tomorrow/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edge_of_Tomorrow_(film)

Saturday Matinee 2015 04: The Man in the High Castle (2015, TV)

mah_high_castle_iconWe’ve already reviewed one of Amazon’s should-we-or-shouldn’t-we pilots, Cocked. (We were pretty ambivalent about it, mostly because we don’t trust Amazon, based on past performance, to deal with the gun-culture central to the story fairly or even competently). Now we’re on to the pilot that seems to be getting the most buzz, and therefore, the one most likely to turn into a series: The Man in the High Castle. This 60s alt-history period piece is based on a Philip K. Dick story, the one sure way to get Science Fiction or Spec Fiction funded in Hollyweird.

Despite the Dick imprimatur, and the involvement of Frank Spotnitz and Ridley Scott, the program has struggled to find an outlet; it was developed as a miniseries for BBC and SyFy before being picked up by Amazon.

man_high_castle_splashThe show opens with a title sequence featuring a breathy singer intoning “Edelweiss” with a nearly inaudible accompaniment, scenes of an almost-recognizable war superimposed on almost-recognizable cityscapes and monuments.

Then it launches into a movie-in-a-movie of bland propaganda, and then exits the movie to show one of our protagonists in a theater. But he’s not there to watch a movie; he’s there to make a contact in spy-movie classic style. Then it’s out into a Times Square that’s almost recognizable: the digital signs, though (one of the few real anachronisms in the setting) are a mixed bag of normal advertising and political propaganda: Nazi propaganda.

Man_High_Castle_(TV_Series)_map

The show’s fundament is this: It’s 1962, and the Axis won World War II sometime in the 1950s (the pilot seems to cite two different dates). They did this, in part, by nuking Washington DC (and they say that like it’s a bad thing!). The Germans occupy the eastern two-thirds or so of the former USA, and the Japanese Empire the western third. A “no man’s land” called the “neutral zone” exists precariously between the two empires.

Acting and Production

heiling nazis bowing japs

It’s film noir, literally: most of the other images, we deliberately lightened. This one of hitlerheiling Nazis and bowing Japs is what the whole production looks like.

We didn’t see any acting that stood out either way, not for excellence nor for failure. The actors seem comfortable in their characters. (Some of the support actors do best, in their less self-contradictory roles). The Nazis are a mix of Nazi-next-door and Central Casting No. 2 Nazi Torturer; as you might suspect, the former have a depth that the latter, standard television caricatures, don’t, but it’s a queasily disturbing depth. Would Americans have collaborated, and rationalized their collaboration, just as men of every European nation did? You bet, and the show nails that, and it’s grim to watch.

Cain't be Nazis without some torturing.

Cain’t be Nazis without some torturing.We lightened this screenshot so that the actors are visible.

Michael Rispoli, Jackie Aprile Jr. on the Sopranos ten years ago, has a tough role as a leader of a demoralized, probably doomed, and definitely infiltrated Resistance cell. Unfortunately the nature of his part means we’re unlikely to see him in future episodes.

The pilot ends with a cliffhanger/reveal that’s quite a surprise in light of what we’ve seen so far. The pilot is cunningly constructed so that, at every stage, you think you know things the characters don’t know, and you do, but the characters also know things that they haven’t revealed yet, so what you know might be so far from the whole story that it’s misleading.

It’s a truism in entertainment that it’s easier and vastly cheaper to put on something in a contemporary or timeless setting, than it is to put on a period setting. In this case, the producers are trying to reproduce a setting that never really existed, but is both speculative and set in the past. As a result, they have created an Axis 1962 that falls into an uncanny valley; it’s convincing enough to be all wrong and disturbing and in that it’s very true to Dick’s vision.

This screenshot was lightened substantially, too.

This screenshot was lightened substantially, too.

Unfortunately, someone in Hollywood read somewhere that Dick’s vision was a dark vision, and ever since then his stories have been brought to the screen without ever using more than half of the light necessary, and The Man in the High Castle is literally dim and hard to make out. It’s even worse than that, because it’s an Amazon online delivery show, and the show’s already left-biased histogram gets further skewed by compression so heavy you can see it, especially in the gross pixelations of  large areas and the 1988-vintage jaggies disrupting diagonal lines. (And that’s in alleged HD).

Not lightened, this is what the whole thing is shot like.

Not lightened, this is what the whole thing is shot like. Dark, out of focus, jaggy. Venetian blinds + too little light to tell the story ≠ “film noir,” sorry.

This seems to be one of the most likely Amazon series to see production, based on viewer response and reviews, despite what must be staggering production costs. Our concern with this series, though, is this: knowing the end of the original story, which was a classic Dick job of lame negativity, where do we go? Can they make us care about something when we know that it’s Philip K. Dick and they’re going to call the Science Fiction equivalent of a deus ex macchina cheat at the end? So far so good, but the tale of Amazon original series so far is a tale of promising launches and leaden thuds.

Accuracy and Weapons

The Nazi troops of the show dress and are armed like Nazis of 1939, not those of 1945. (The American Nazis have red and white stripes on their Nazi armbands. Nice touch… Betsy Ross was not available for comment). We have to suspect that the K.98k, as beloved as it may have been by your basic German Landser, would have been, shall we say, substitute standard by 1962, and they’d have been carrying K.43s or Mp.44s. But nope, it’s a mixed bag of K.98s and MP.40s. The Sons of Nippon, likewise, are brandishing Arisakas and Nambus.

man_high_castle_sst_flyingThe producers weren’t entirely mired in 1940 for their Axis technology; a functionary of the elderly, ailing Führer visits the Japanese zone, and he doesn’t come by Ju52 or even Fw200 Condor (the planes that were executive transports in the Nazi state), but by a triple-sonic transport, much like the SSTs that American, French, English and Soviet engineers were really developing in 1962. They lavished some CGI on this critter, and it shows.

man_high_castle_sst

The weapons don’t have a big role in The Man in the High Castle. They’re mostly an adjunct to the plot. There are not any glaring anachronisms, apart from the usual Hollywood fail of pre-1970s guys using a two-handed pistol hold (the only place this was taught prior to Weaver and Cooper, was the Imperial Japanese Army; in 1962 American police and military were still generally learning a one-hand aimed shot for 25 yards and out, and a hip-level “point shooting” one-hand stance for close in, 7 yard, shots). The Resistance guys seem to use a .45 1911, reasonably enough.

The bottom line

The Man in the High Castle is the kind of thing that’s likely to be loved by the usual Philip K. Dick fans, to one of whom, Roberta X, a hat tip is due (we’d not have watched it without her recommendation). Like other Amazon series pilots, it has considerable potential, which Amazon has yet to deliver on.

It’s free with Prime. Wouldn’t it be nice if they would leave TV to the TV nets, and instead put that money into improving their currently anti– position to at least neutrality towards the gun world, and hold the line on price and shipping?

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com streaming page:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00RSI5EHQ/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1740299/

  • IMFDB page:

None, it would probably have to be picked up as a series.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the-man-in-the-high-castle/s01/

  • Wikipedia page (quite detailed, in this case):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_in_the_High_Castle_(TV_series)

Wednesday Matinee: History’s Sons of Liberty

Well, we have something else for the Saturday Matinee (another Amazon pilot, actually, hat tip to Tam and Roberta), and we finished watching this (six hours, counting five hours of Sam Adams and Geico ads) so we’re going to unload this one this morning. Call it a Wednesday Matinee.

What Sons of Liberty is, is a sort of re-imagining of the Revolution from around 1765 to 1776, an an action flick, with Sam Adams and Paul Revere as the key action heroes. The story does hit some of the high points, including the Boston Massacre and the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill; but it omits others, including John Adams’s defense of the Massacre officers and the Colonial seizure of Fort Ticonderoga (and the transport of the guns to the hills overlooking Boston, which forced the British withdrawal). It fictionalizes the historic events, almost beyond recognition in some case, and it includes events that never happened, like a powder raid we’ll mention below, a sexual affair we doubt any historian ever would stand up to claim was real or even likely, and whole battles conjured from the fertile minds of scriptwriters.

As an action film set in the American Revolution, it’s pretty entertaining. Who knew that Sam Adams could swing from balconies, John Hancock blast Redcoats with a pistol, or Paul Revere throw a knife?

The series drops the ball completely on explaining why the American colonies and the Crown drifted ever closer to war in the 1760s and 70s. Apparently fearing that History Channel audiences, brains sapped by a steady diet of space alien and superstitious-inbreed reality-show Scheißdreck, couldn’t follow the conventional explanation of the Stamp Act and Coercive Acts (known in America as the Intolerable Acts), they instead explain the Revolution by making the British leaders craven brutes. (Seriously, the portrayals of General Gage and Major Pitcairn here make The Patriot’s hatchet job on a thinly-disguised Banastre Tarleton look like a careful and respectful treatment of a sympathetic and three-dimensional character).

We are spared another complete temporo-spatial transplantation of a massacre, like The Patriot’s “pre-enactment” of the 2nd SS’s butchery at Ouradour-sur-Glane. So there is that. And again, taken purely as an actioner, the miniseries is pretty good.

Acting and Production

Once you’ve accepted that this is not the history of the American Revolution, but rather Hollywood Generic Action Film Plot 3B framed by some events of the Revolution, you can appreciate what the actors are doing. They’re all pretty good, but Martin Csokas is a standout as a version of General Thomas Gage written and played with the resonant evil of a Bond villain. The guys playing the Sons are mostly young, skilled TV actors (mostly younger than the actual men they’re portraying were, but then, the actual men they’re portraying didn’t need Jackie Chan athletics to found a nation).

The Sons of Liberty, TV style. L-r: Dr Warren, Paul Revere, Sam Adams, John Hancock, John Adams.

The Sons of Liberty, TV style. L-r: Dr Warren, Paul Revere, Sam Adams, John Hancock, John Adams.

The action is constantly moving and usually attractive to the eye. The green-screen, CGI and stunts all advance the story, and are mostly cinema-quality (some of the scenes of ships are not, so much).

It is the script that is the unavoidable irritant here. The constant use of juvenile anachronisms is irritating and makes one wonder if the whole thing was drafted by someone using the free Wi-Fi in a hookah bar in Boulder. No, a senior statesman would not have described one of his allies’ ideas as “batshit crazy.”

It doesn’t go quite so far as Revere telling Dawes, “Yo, dawg, let’s roll!” but it gets close. One character actually uses the metaphor “A Bridge Too Far” for a position beyond which the Continental Congress could readily be persuaded. This metaphor came into the language from the title of a book published approximately two centuries later. We have a first edition. Bought new.

The anachronisms extend beyond the dialogue, and the characters in general act like modern men and women in frilly old costumes.

Accuracy and Weapons

There is a very peculiar thing happening with weapons in the story: while the armorers took great care to get the firearms right for the period, and the director even managed to capture some of the smoke and delay of flintlock firing, the inaccuracy of the plot makes the careful attention given to most period costumes, etc.

The flintlocks appear to all be Brown Besses, but in keeping with the miniseries’s anachronistic nature, everybody calls them, “rifles,” not “muskets” or “firelocks,” as 18th-Century natives would have done. They are all polished bright, which seems to be correct for King’s Regulations of the period.

Cannon are shown here and there — they’re just generic props without much effort at realism. The Redcoats in the show all wear the same color facings.

But while the guns themselves are more or less period correct, the history of how the militia got them is all wrong, as the Journal of the American Revolution explains:

Given all of this, the scene where Adams and Hancock meet a man about acquiring guns and men to fire them is ridiculous. Since Queen Anne’s War, and even before, Massachusetts had a militia law (that was in line with the English Constitution); each citizen had a right to keep privately-owned arms and ammunition. When the Massachusetts committees took a count of their fighting force in 1774, they had thousands of men to call upon to fight—these were colony-trained militia which had existed for well over 100 years. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had more trouble acquiring artillery and did authorize Warren to talk to men in Boston trained in those types of guns.

These men trained openly, not in the woods as shown in the episode. It was actually the law in Massachusetts to drill every few months. Gage knew this and didn’t make any attempt to stop this from happening. And he did not disarm the population; that is an oft-repeated myth that the series picks up and uses without any critical thought. Gage did not touch privately-owned guns and munitions because seizing private property would violate the law—the very thing Gage held dear.

Lord Percy, one of Gages’ subordinates, and other officers were quite upset about this. Percy noted, “The Gen’l has not yet molested them in the least. They have even free access to and from this town, tho’ armed with firelocks [muskets], provided they only come in small nos [numbers].”

But the historical accuracy of the action is completely lacking. There’s a daring raid on a powder store in an armory modeled on that at Colonial Williamsburg, that never took place. The British leave Boston pursuant to negotiations, but in fact they were forced out by rebel domination of the harbor, once Henry Knox (whose descendants may breathe a sigh of relief that he was not portrayed in the miniseries) delivered the cannon from Ticonderoga. Lexington and Concord are bloodier that small-h history shows, and the TV versions took place in large, empty fields while Lexington in particular was fought in and near the town. In fact, the whole miniseries ends with Washington facing Gage in a pitched battle at New York (in the real world, the Continental Army withdrew). We could go on (it seems like we already have, doesn’t it?), but the Journal of the American Revolution has gone into greater depth for you.

The bottom line

The History Channel seems to have concluded that its viewers want anything but small-h history, and who are we to argue with them? It’s a fun miniseries, but will be more enjoyable the less you know of the actual history.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD instant video page (at $9-10 an episode? Save your money, it’s supposed to be streaming for free on the History Channel website):

http://www.amazon.com/Sons-of-Liberty-Sneak-Peek/dp/B00S2CM0IS/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3782838/

  • IMFDB page:

nothing yet

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (55%, rotten):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/sons-of-liberty/s01/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sons_of_Liberty_(miniseries)

If Guns Don’t Cause Crime… What Does?

question markWe all know the arguments. Sure, a gun in the wrong hands can mete out violence, death, loss, and suffering. But the same gun in the right hands can bring joy. It can be a family heirloom, murmoring comfort across generations. And it can be a bulwark of righteousness, defending the weak from arbitrary cruelties at the hands of the strong and lawless.

The same gun, the very same. So we do not believe that guns cause crime.

If guns do not, though, what does? 

Open wide!

What if free will and bad choices aren’t the only reasons some criminals come to this?

Criminologist Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania has a complex and troubling array of answers in The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime. Raine’s conclusions are equally troubling no matter what preconceptions you bring to the table, whether you’re a fuzzy-headed liberal who think bad penumbras emanating from firearms produce a Boston Strangler, or whether you’re a deterministic right-winger who takes a gunsmithing approach: for the ones we can’t just shoot dead, just apply some Loc-Tite to the loose nut behind the trigger.

The book follows the usual format for a book meant to popularize science data:

  • Some anecdotes draw the reader’s interest. In this case, they’re criminal anecdotes, and a great many will illustrate the story and keep you engaged as a reader. But even in the preface, Raine is used to crime from the victim’s viewpoint. Where he lives, in Philadelphia, one must expect to be robbed and burgled, and anyway, “I like to live close to my data.” He is confident, at least, that none of the Philadelphia Wealth Redistribution Specialists will seize any of his books. What would they want with those? Another criminal encounter, in Bodrum, Turkey, is violent.
  • Then, the data are presented. These include the usual weak tea of social science, where .3 passes for a strong correlation, but also newer science based in genetics — molecular and behavioral genetics alike. While the idea that behaviors have, at least in part, molecular, genetic and therefore heritable components is widely denied in modern society, it’s not the scientists doing the denying.
  • In time, the theory takes shape. Raine’s theory, in a nutshell, is that, “biological factors early in life can propel some kids toward adult violence.” He explores this at length, at the evidence pro and con, and notes that this “Dr Jekyll” view of crime that informs his science is at odds with the “Mr Hyde” view that has come from being a violent-crime victim.
  • To the extent a non-fiction book has a climax, it comes when he suggests paths forward. Like a real (as opposed to social) scientist, though, Raine is careful to show both pros and cons of his view of the future.
  • Finally, the book ends with a call for, what else? More research.

The Anatomy of Violence is a long way from providing a single answer; while we can aggregate crime data and see some trends, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that each crime is a discrete act, which involves discrete individuals, not population groups or a country at large.

MonopolyJailOur answer to the question posed in the title of this post would have been, “Well, duh. Criminals cause crime, what else?” But as attractive as it might be, that simple near-tautology doesn’t answer the real question. And that is the question that Raine has actually addressed: “what causes criminals?” There are surely a multiplicity of causes. but Raine zeroes in on a couple of axes that could be developed from recorded social science data indicators: traumatic delivery at birth, and maternal rejection.

Since criminal records don’t include things like stressful deliveries (he used such proxies as prematurity, fetal-alcohol syndrome, and, surprisingly, C-section) or maternal rejection (he used proxies like the presence of the infant in government sponsored care apart from his mother during his first year), Raine had to find or make studies that correlated data about the same people from different sources — easy in, say, Scandinavian countries where there are no qualms about academic use of Government-gathered cradle-to-grave data points, harder but possible in the Anglosphere, given some imagination.

(When referring to Raine’s criminals, “his” is used advisedly; the study is primarily of violent crime, and women violent criminals are tip-of-the-distro-tail outliers both as criminals and as women, despite centuries of pursuit of equality by all right-thinking people).

You can quibble about the markers Raine chose for this hard-infancy perfecta, you can propose alternatives, you can certainly suspect that he has found a Black Swan of coincidence rather than his true correlation. But the data are striking.

It turns out that the two problems together seem to have a strong and statistically significant correlation with later-in-life criminality, but, and here’s the kicker, each one individually does not. Nearly 10% of babies who had this, as we’ve called it, hard-infancy perfecta, would later wind up as youths in trouble with the law for violent crime.

That is just one of the findings in this fascinating book.

Raine’s book looks back to Cesare Lombroso, the father of criminology, who thought that crime had a biological basis in the brain, and that criminals were throwbacks to primitive hominids. “The theory he spawned turned out to be socially disastrous,” Raine writes, but noted that Lombroso divided criminals into those who could be rehabilitated — for whom he strongly supported rehabilitation — and those that could not — for whom Lombroso’s solution, the death penalty, might be merciful. Lombroso’s approach was rejected in favor of the 20th-Century sociological approach, the failure of which is evident in most inner cities. Raine, while saying all the proper things about Lombroso’s limitations, rejects the sociological approach, and finds the answer to crime in “the dark forces of our evolutionary past.”

The behavior that seems maladaptive in today’s criminal was adaptive in the evolutionary past, and in some cases, it remains adaptive today, genetically speaking.

Raine, for his part, as a solid liberal academic, is appalled at what he has found, but seems determined to follow the data wherever it goes, regardless of his distaste for what he is learning. He seems disturbed to think what sort of social interventions might be excused if the public gets a dim, incomplete or faulty idea of what a biological basis for crime means. He has a point there; even the strongest indicators he find of criminality yield a population that’s 9/10 not criminal. Prophylactically incarcerating everyone with birth trauma and a lousy mother would fill the prisons with innocent men who have overcome these disadvantages — an outcome that the data suggest is more common that being overcome by them.

(That says something about the resilience of human beings, doesn’t it? We’re pretty robust critters, for all the first-world-problems whining by “traumatized” spoiled children).

The answer, of course, is to continue to follow the data and learn, and cautiously to pursue societal interventions, if any, that seem likely to reduce those birthing and infantile traumas and other causative factors. Meanwhile we must continue to deal with crime and criminals the only way a free society can: as individual acts by individuals and small groups of individuals. Courts with their wooly-headed judges, posturing lawyers, and gutter-swept juries are not a perfect system, just better than everything else humanity has tried since Hammurabi’s day. (You wouldn’t want to be governed by his laws; go look them up).

One of the very best predictors of violent crime, for example, is being on parole or probation for violent crime. The societal intervention suggests itself, and the last several decades’ experiment with increased incarceration of the violent seems to have proved out, as most violent crime metrics have decreased as criminals have been disabled from their preferred vocations (or avocations) by being locked up. But whatever we do must be done whilst preserving the natural rights of men — yes, even of criminals. Anything else would be unworthy of the system bequeathed us by the Age of the Enlightenment.

Saturday Matinee 2015 03: American Sniper (2014)

American Sniper posterBy now you’ve already seen the trailer of American Sniper, and a good number of you have already seen the movie. You’ve certainly seen some of the other reviews, and some of the media controversy the film has stirred up. Thus, the question becomes: what can we add, without spoiling it for those who have yet to see the movie?

Hey! Impossible mission? Sounds like it’s right up our alley.

There’s several levels in this story: it’s a bio, a war story, a tragedy. It’s also a tale of a man’s and a family’s progress amid challenges that are expected, and the other kind of challenges, the ones that just happen to you regardless of what your own thoughts and desires might be.

American_Sniper_Bradley_Cooper

Clint Eastwood’s version of American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper, is an incredibly on point and accurate portrayal of Chris Kyle. It sticks fairly close to the story in Kyle’s book (we’ll mention some of the deviations). We previously reviewed that book in these pages, and we liked it a lot. (We also reviewed his posthumous American Guns). We even reviewed Kyle’s only TV-series appearance, with several other SOF vets and several second-call Hollywood stars, on the “reality” show Stars Earn Stripes, in which a gang of surprisingly nervy Hollywood and sports celebrities competed in military-themed events, with cash donations to military charities at stake. So it’s fair to say that, before his murder, we were watching indulgently as Kyle grinned his way to the strange status of America’s Celebrity SEAL.

Eastwood and, especially, Cooper, have been blueprint-faithful to the character of Chris Kyle, even when they’ve diverged from his true story for the sake of Hollywood storytelling. The movie is, with some irritating exceptions, true to the many experiences of today’s SOF quiet professional: motivations, training, combat, the almost indecent thrill of combat victory and the indescribable heartache of combat loss.

The movie is particularly good about handling the process of reintegration to home, family, and stateside life in general. It is almost too good, almost creepily good. A lot of vets will be watching  some scenes, the impact of which we won’t spoil with detailed descriptions, and think: “Crap, was I like that when I came back? I guess I was.”

You do not have to go far to find a reviewer praising the film for its “message,” or condemning it, for the same reason. These reviewers are missing the story entirely. The message is a deep and personal one. It is that, as Sienna Miller says as Taya Kyle, “You don’t think this war has changed you, but it has.” And that’s the message — how war does change you, but if you’re lucky and grounded, like most of us, like Chris Kyle, with his solid family, it doesn’t change your character. For really, what ever does?

AMERICAN SNIPER MOV

Many of the reviewers who are deep into the politics of the film (politics that are scarcely there in the first place) are merely projecting their own beliefs onto the movie. Eastwood didn’t make an all-American flag-waver, like Wayne’s The Green Berets, here. He also didn’t make a typical Hollywood Iraq War emetic, either. The fans of the latter genre have been bashing American Sniper in close formation; the two most (unintentionally) entertaining were Dennis Jett’s review in The New Republic, which he wrote after seeing the trailer, and some acting coach’s strangled cry of heartache, that gets to his real issue in the fifth or sixth paragraph… George Bush!!1! 

For the record, George Bush does not appear in this movie. But he does show up in a certain kind of review.

Acting and Production

Cooper, most successful as a comic actor until now, is going to have a long and deep dramatic career, if this is any indication. He’s so incredibly good that people may forget that he was “the guy from the Hangover movies” before being cast as Kyle (Cooper also shared production credit). And Sienna Miller is absolutely convincing as Taya Kyle. It was only after seeing the movie that we saw an interview clip which told us she’s English, blonde, and beautiful in a Hollywood-glamorous way. Somehow she made a perfect showing as American, brunette, and beautiful in a girl-next-door way. The usual American or Brit trying to fake the other’s accent is dreadful. Miller isn’t. Hell, after seeing this, she could probably pull off Blofeld in the next Bond. We wouldn’t bet against her.

The rest of the cast is there for the exposition, mostly; Kyle’s ties with his teammates are implied more than shown.

We don’t have any idea how they got some of the shots they did, but I suspect that they’ve done some novel, or at least rare, technical stuff behind the cameras. We saw the movie with Kid and three other friends in an IMAX theater (the smaller sort that’s in a metroplex, not one of the big, purpose-built “real IMAX” ones) and were impressed. The audio was clear, which it isn’t always, these days.

AmericanSniper_firing position

We complain all the time about movies set in “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” that look like they were shot in the same California hills that have seen 500 B-westerns, and in “Hadji villages” that are clearly the same old “Mexican village” or “Dodge city” backlots with a day of half-hearted set dressing. We won’t do that here. The locations that stood in for Iraqi ones were fairly close. There are some giveaways in the picture above, like all the red brick. Still, somebody cared enough to try.

Accuracy and Weapons

Guns are front and center in any sniping story, and you want the guns to be right. The guns that screen-Kyle uses track closely with the ones that real-Kyle said he used in the book. In his early tours, he totes a Remington 700 in .300 Win Mag with a McMillan stock. (You can even read the rollmark, “Remington 700,” on one shot). On his last tour, he does have a McMillan .338. Defensively, he carries a short-barreled M4 (predating the Mk18) or Mk18. He and other SEAL snipers also use gas guns (Mk11, Mk12) and this is all accurate. Other SEALs carry Mk46 and Mk48 machine guns. For pistols, the SEALs carry SIG 226s, which are correct, as opposed to the Beretta M9s in Lone Survivor. The SEALs shoot suppressed a lot, and, mirabile dictu, the sounds are the sounds of suppressed rifles, not the usual Hollywood whifffff. The suppressor is the SOPMOD-correct Knight’s Armament Company QDSS-NT4.

The guns of the Iraqi enemy are not neglected, either. Iraqi snipers use Dragunovs and PSLs, but also, a weapons cache reveals a stashed Tabuk. Not many people in Hollywood could tell a Tabuk from Timbuktu, so somebody went out on a limb to get that detail right. Bravo Zulu, whoever you were. (According to IMFDB, it was film armorer Independent Studio Services, who had Two Rivers Arms Company build the Tabuks). All the other stuff in the cache is stuff you find in a good cache: AKMSes, Russian-pattern ‘nades, RPG-7Vs.

Americansniper-tabuk-1

 

SVD Reticle

This is what an SVD looks like from the operator end. The dashed, curved line lets you range a 1.7m high man from 200 to 1000m. Using the holdover chevrons depends on what range you zeroed at.

One small detail — when they show the view through an American sniper scope, they show a generic mildot reticle, or generic mill-crosshatch. Close enough (and we don’t presume to know what SEAL Team Three was running in Iraq). But they show something similar for the Dragunov, instead of the Dragunov’s crosshair + stadia lines for ranging + hold-over chevrons.

This may have been because, while the information on the Dragunov scope is useful to you if you’ve been trained to use it, it isn’t much use at all if you’re trying to watch a movie through it.

Nobody’s too worked up about reticles. But we’ve heard some complaints because some liberties have been taken with the facts of Kyle’s story, to punch the plot up and to provide some closure. This includes several deliberate departures from Kyle’s book and previous interviews. These include:

  • Telephone calls home on a satphone whilst in combat (but they did get the particular satphone model SOF were carrying during those years exactly right, a detail that amazed us).
  • A sniper duel with a named sniper who was supposedly an Olympic medalist. This appears to have been Hollywood punch-up; Chris was hunting a specific sniper, but didn’t get a chance to get him. According to Wikipedia (yeah, we know, that’s “according to random Internet bullshit), the sniper duel aspect was added to the screenplay when Steven Spielberg was involved as director.
  • An Iraqi torturer who punished “collaborators” with an electric drill. This actually did happen, but it does not appear to have happened to anyone tied to Kyle.
  • A pair of very long sniper shots. One is Kyle’s and does duplicate both the distance and the difficulty of a shot he actually took, but the movie changes the circumstances (sorry for vagueness; trying to avoid spoilers). The other is taken by an Iraqi with a Dragunov at nearly 2,000 meters. In expert hands, with match or sniper ammo, the Drag is a minute-of-angle gun, but in fact Iraqi sniper shots tend to be short range urban shots (<400m, often <200m, and sometimes <100m).

The ugly fact is that, while movies kind of rely on the plot being wrapped up neatly on schedule, for those of us whose tours are not going to be made into movies, there’s no closure to be had. Just a lot of open-ended questions really. You have to work it out on your own. (And come to think about it, Chris Kyle’s real life was like that, even though a version of it has been made into a movie).

The bottom line

American Sniper is the best movie about the Iraq War you’re likely to see in 2015. It’s one of the best depictions of the burden of war on warriors since… hmm… 12 O’Clock High. (Many movies since have gripped the third rail of preachy didacticism instead of the audience heartstrings they were reaching for). It’s also one of the best Eastwood directing efforts, and he’s been doing that a long time (lord love a duck, the guy is 84 years old!) Dulce et decorum est that it has already earned more for its producers than all of the preachy war-is-heck-no,-make-that-ick crap that Hollywood has sluiced out over the last dozen-plus years. Put together.

As a SEAL film, it beats the last quality leader, Act of Valor, on the strength of what Hollywood really does well, when it all comes together: script, acting, direction, cinematography. As a SEAL film, it beats the last box office leader, the deeply flawed Zero Dark Thirty. 

As a Special Forces veteran, we’re profoundly heartened that there is such a thing as a SEAL film genre, and that we have not got one. Frankly, we’d rather be the ones reviewing films about them, than having a bunch of frogmen reviewing films about us. 

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

That’s going to take a while.

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2179136/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/American_Sniper

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/american_sniper/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Sniper_(film)

 

We’ll Be Watching the Patriots, not the Football

Whether the ball is inflated more or less is a true #FirstWorldProblem, and wasn’t on the menu of the original Patriots for whom Belichick and Brady’s band of spheroidal-ball abusers are named. Fortunately, the original Patriots are coming to TV in a scripted historical miniseries, beginning this Sunday, 25 Jan 15, at 2100 R (2000 Central Time). It will run on three Sundays, for two hours each. No, no; as clarified in the comments, “Three consecutive nights (Sunday, 25th; Monday. 26th: Tuesday, 27th) 9:00 pm – 11:00 pm ET.” Thanks, Qajagon, whoever you may be.

sonsofliberty

We’ve mentioned before that we see the American Revolution as an insurgency, and we think that some of the issues related to that will be covered in the new History Channel miniseries, Sons of Liberty. It covers the initial events of the revolution, taking place in and around Boston in 1772 to 1776, including such high points as the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, the initial battles of Lexington and Concord, the reinforcement of the Regulars, and the Battle of Bunker Hill. (It culminates, apparently, in the Declaration of Independence).

sonsofliberty_bunker_hilljpg

These battles were a fairly self-contained first phase of the Revolution. They were followed by the Colonial move to seize Fort Ticonderoga in the New York wilderness, and reinforce Charles Town and Dorchester Heights with the cannon (after an epic overland move), forcing the British and the throngs of loyalist refugees seeking their protection to abandon Boston and displace to New York and/or Canada. We don’t think those events are shown in this series, nor are some of the key events we’ve discussed here before, like the expulsion of the court from Worcester, or the raids on Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth. Paul Revere’s Ride is shown accurately (including its ignominious end, under the gun of a British officer; Dr. Samuel Prescott, whom Revere and his fellow rider William Dawes had picked up along the way, escaped and made it to Concord alone).

We grew up around the places where these events happened, and their history used to be taught in depth. As a result, many fictional depictions of the early Revolution sets our teeth on edge. But this one looks to have general historical accuracy, although there will no doubt be other issues with it.

For example, the actors speak in modern accents, rhythms, and language. This is probably intended to keep modern viewers interested.

But we think it will be a pretty good look at the underground and auxiliary, as well as the celebrated “Minutemen” militia that became the armed or guerilla element of the resistance to British rule. There is some effort spent on the intelligence side of the war, including an espionage ring that touched General Thomas Gage himself.

On the plus side, there are some great actors in this show. Fans of Breaking Bad will be pleased to see Dean Norris (“Hank Schrader”) in the role of larger-than-life Ben Franklin. Cousins Sam and John Adams, the radical firebrand and the even-handed lawyer, are played by Ben Barnes and Henry Thomas; John Hancock (Rafe Spall), Dr. Joseph Warren (Ryan Eggold), and Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James) round out the headlining Patriots. George Washington (Jason O’Mara) makes a later appearance. On the British side, General Gage (Marton Csokas), his American wife Margaret (Emily Berrington), and Major John Pitcairn (Kevin Ryan) are represented. The battle scenes are small and closely shot (cable TV budget, after all) but the props and armory seem reasonable, based on previews.

sonsofliberty_attack

On the minus side, the show’s website is packed with spam and malware, including a pernicious   malware that tries to force connections to cdn.optimatic.com and collect personal information. Optimatic is supposedly an SEO tool (a fly-by-night business that attracts everything but legitimate businessmen in the first place) but testing seems to show it does not work. It does, however, collect information on you. So we’re not linking to the website.

Now, despite the category we put this in, it’s not a real review; we’ve only seen a few promos and squibs. We may have a review after we watch the first episode Sunday.

Saturday Matinee: Cocked (pilot, online TV, 2015)

cocked_paxson_auto_revolver_muzzle So, what’s the gun industry like? If you watch the pilot of Amazon’s potential new series, Cocked, it’s inhabited by some of the weirdest and least likeable people you could ever imagine meeting.

The company at the center of the show, Paxson Firearms, has been so mismanaged so long that it’s about to go paws up in, as one character notes, the best selling environment for firearms in history. Old Man Paxson (Brian Dennehy), who inherited and then built the business in decades out of mind, is out of touch; his son, middle-aged enfant terrible Grady (Jason Lee), is a hyper, unfocused cocaine addict.

They do manage a wry look at the SHOT Show.

They do manage a wry look at the SHOT Show in a rapid-fire montage that pokes fun at gun marketing excesses.

Mason (or is it Stacy?) in a fetching pose.

Mason (or is it Stacy?) in a fetching pose. Hollywood style.

“Beauty, bullets and blow,” he asks the camera, in a FIRE (the show’s clone of SHOT) show demo hotel, after he and two demo dollies, Mason and Stacy, sniff white powder off dummy pistols. “What more could a guy ask for?” One of the bimbos asks if he has a brother. It turns out, he does. But not the kind that will cavort.

Enter younger brother Richard (Sam Trammell), whose happy relationship with a solid family  is a glaring contrast to Grady’s never-grow-up juvenility. (Scots actress Laura Fraser, whom you may remember as crazy Lydia from Breaking Bad, is outstanding as Hannah, Richard’s loving but henpecking wife). A combination of frustration with his thankless role as an underling in a Big consulting firm, and the death throes of Paxson, gets Richard to leap off the partnership treadmill and return to the family business. That’s a slight spoiler, but when it happens it’s been telegraphed with such force and repetition that it’s been foreloomed more than foreshadowed, so we’re not giving much up here.

Grady takes a business meeting.

Grady takes a business meeting. Featuring Stacy and Mason. Or is it Mason and Stacy? Why doesn’t this ever happen to WeaponsMan.com at trade shows? Wait, does this happen to anybody at trade shows?

Grady is what people in Hollywood think top businessmen are like, because in their peculiar business, he’s exactly what top businessmen are like. Except that they’re more likely to be doing coke and banging two preteen boys. So most of the jaundiced view of the gun industry is just the usual Hollywierd suspects projecting. 

A merger is conducted, in this Hollywood gun industry, by threats and blackmail, with an offer rejected by pissing on the documents.

Literally.

In fact, Brian Dennehy urinates not once, but twice, at inflection points in the pilot’s plot. A key subplot revolves around the fact that Grady’s on parole for something involving drugs (hey, isn’t everybody? Robery Downey Jr was not available for comment) and can be required to pee in a cup at any time. (Does the director or one of the writers have urinary issues? Better get his prostate checked. This has been a public service of WeaponsMan.com).

The characters live in a house whose interior is a nightmare blend of Hearst Castle and Bannerman’s Island.

Like most Amazon original TV dramas, it’s trying hard to be more Hollywood than Hollywood, but its anti-gun politics are subdued and off center stage. In Cocked, the didactic message that is central to the show seems to be gun folks are all ate up. If any of you watched last year’ clever Alpha House, about four Senators sharing a Washington townhouse, you saw how a brilliant pilot (the opening scene is TV gold) deteriorated in three episodes into recycled jokes and plotlines from MSNBC and DailyKos. (Including, naturally, anti-gun snark and themes). What happened after about Episode 3, your reviewer is among the 99.999% of Amazon Prime members who couldn’t stay interested enough to learn (despite a fantastic cast led by John Goodman as a burned-out North Carolina senator).

Acting and Production

There’s workmanlike performances by most, especially the two “brothers,” but the presence of notorious Stolen Valor case Brian Dennehy in a top-billed role is an irritant for real vets and anyone who respects them. Dennehy is a solid actor, and his role is a secondary one, as the patriarch of the family. Clearly the main load is going to be carried by the next generation. (Indeed, they’ve laid the groundwork to write him out if Dennehy should kick the bucket. Not that we wish the old fellow that kind of ill).

Sam Trammell and Jason Lee seem to both be at their best, or perhaps best-exploited by this director, in reaction shots. Trammell can say a lot with the set of his jaw, and has to, because his character is one that is prone to deference.

Some money was spent on the production, although locations that are supposed to be in Virginia horse country instead are clearly in the barren, arid scrubland of the Southwest — probably California.

This is the Virginia hills, it says here.

This is the Virginia hills, it says here. Suuuure. What the hell, at least there’s no zombies or vampires (sparkly or otherwise).

The score also needs to be mentioned: it’s crap, especially the intro theme. Crap. Consider it mentioned. The sole exception is when an Allegro from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is dragged out for contrast in a scene with Grady shooting watermelon “heads” off of manikins and blowing up bottles; even this production can’t screw up Vivaldi.

Weapons and Accuracy

There’s no real attempt to depict firearms accurately or even plausibly. The “secret weapon” that Grady totes into the mock SHOT show in the opening scenes turns out to be, in the amazed word of one of the employees, “It’s a revolver… and it’s semi-automatic! I’d leave my wife for that gun. You are a goddamn engineering genius.”

The Paxson Auto Revolver. Man, it's fugly.

The Paxson Auto Revolver. Man, it’s fugly.

But this bizarre mock-up, this undead Webley-Fosbery that’s intended to sell for $1,200, has been copied by a competitor, who offers his knock-off for $599. So in their fictional gun industry, there are two firms (and Lord knows how many customers) who have absolutely no sense of aesthetics.

Richard, a management consultant, brainstorms ways to unload the unwanted semi-automatic-revolvers. The marketing brainstorm he strikes, far from being one neglected by industry, is one that some industry firms have pursued for years, and will leave anybody in the industry going, “What’s the big deal? We have nothing against those people and have taken their money every day for centuries.” But Hollywood can’t imagine a gun industry that isn’t biased against a minority group. (To their credit, they do show minority workers at Paxson, although not to the extent that they really exist in the industry).

There are occasional snippets of gun culture which show that the writers have done a little research, including the sort of over-the-top reaction some have when untutored newbs violate safety rules they haven’t learned yet. There’s a lot of potential here (they really need Rick Taylor, World’s Greatest Tactical Instructor), but it’s hard to imagine them not squandering it.

The fictional companies in the Hollywood version of industry are Paxson Firearms and Rayburn, which was founded by the prodigal uncle of the Paxson family. Paxson’s back story was that it made bicycles and other household appliances and started making guns in 1938. During the war, it made M1 rifles. Lately, it has lost money and fallen behind the industry, in part because of the old man’s preference for unfashionable products, and certainly also because of a lack of professional management, and the immaturity of the heir apparent. Those things can happen, of course, in any industry, and they have considerable entertainment potential.

The Bottom Line

Amazon was looking for a breakout series when they made this. They’re still looking. Last year’s great hope, Alpha House, went from a fun pilot with a great cast to must-we-watch-this-? TV in three episodes. (We don’t know where it went after that. Watching it is free, but the time isn’t).

The show can’t really decide if it’s a drama or a comedy, so it drops unsatisfyingly in the hole in between, mostly on the drama side. In the end, the writers and actors don’t truly respect the sort of people that they are portraying, even to the degree that writers and actors respect their characters who might be horrible criminals, and that makes the whole thing feel inauthentic and phoned-in, despite a lot of hard work by the cast and crew.

If they make more episodes, we would probably watch them. There’s an ironic parallel for Amazon here: a chance here, like the one Richard talks the on-screen business into taking, to reach a demographic that is historically underserved, canine loyal, and flush with wealth that Hollywood can’t tap in to: the People of the Gun. Will they take that chance, or play to the neighbors in Brentwood and Laurel Canyon?