War Flowers: Amateur Effort Makes this History Buff Cringe

A Southern belle waiting for her husband to come home falls for a wounded Union soldier in this silly Civil War drama.

Written and directed by Serge Rodnunsky, War Flowers (2012) is a vanity period film staring a surprising cast, including veteran actors Christina Ricci and Tom Berenger. A few charming performances save this otherwise meandering and strange take on American history from being too unbearable to watch, but history buffs will cringe.

Union general McIntire (Tom Berenger) lost two sons at the Battle of Antietam, so when his army invades an unnamed valley in North Carolina in 1863, he tries to send his third son, Louis (Jason Gedrick), back home before the war ends. Eager to get into the fight, Louis disobeys his father but gets wounded and seeks shelter in a farm house.

The house is owned by Sarabeth Ellis (Christina Ricci) and her daughter Melody (Gabrielle Popa), who are waiting for Sarabeth’s husband, John (Bren Foster), to return from the war. Sarabeth believes John has been killed, but Melody has faith. Short on food, they’re harassed by a local derelict, Rufus (Kurt Yaeger).

As the fortunes of war swirl around their farm, Sarabeth must decide whether to embrace her unwelcome Yankee visitor and perhaps move on with her life, or give up and succumb to the horrors of war. Things look bleak when Louis McIntire is captured by his own men, mistaken for a Confederate, and left in the stockade by his father. Will the two reunite and survive?

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Pragmatism vs. Ideology in Lincoln (2012)

An intellectual debate between opposing philosophical approaches plays out in Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic.

Director Steven Spielberg’s biopic of President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment during the closing months of the American Civil War was a critical success, with strong performances by Daniel Day Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones. Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of resolute and idealistic Thaddeus Stevens was the perfect foil to Lincoln’s more pragmatic and folksy personality.

Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) was a U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania, who served from 1849 to 1853, and again from 1859 to his death in 1868. Stevens was a staunch abolitionist and leader of the Radical faction of the Republican Party, who sought total legal and social equality for African Americans, including redistribution of Southern lands to freed slaves.

President Lincoln and Congressman Stevens had the same goal. Both wanted the Thirteenth Amendment passed, which would forever outlaw slavery in the United States. That required a two-thirds majority vote, and Lincoln wanted the amendment passed in the House of Representatives before the Confederacy surrendered, which was not a matter of if but when. In order to get the necessary votes, Lincoln needed bipartisan support from conservative Democrats as well as Republicans. Stevens, however, refused to compromise and moderate his tone.

In one scene of dialog from Lincoln, Lincoln and Stevens meet in a smoke-filled kitchen to hash out their differences. Lincoln needs to get Stevens on his side, but Stevens seems uninterested in compromise. This conversation is a perfect contrast between ideology and pragmatism. Pragmatists are willing to meet their opponents halfway, while ideologues will only accept a total and complete triumph of their ideas.

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That Time Antonio Banderas Starred in a Movie Romanticizing Benito Mussolini

Spanish-born actor Antonio Banderas was hot in the mid-1990s, starring in Hollywood films like Philadelphia (1993), Interview with the Vampire (1994), Desperado (1995), Evita, (1996), and The Mask of Zorro (1998). Before his career in the United States took off, however, he starred in a little known Italian miniseries later released as a film about a young, handsome and idealistic Italian socialist who became an influential Italian leader. That Italian leader was Benito Mussolini.

Wait… what?

Written by Vincenzo Cerami, et al, and directed by Gianluigi Calderone, Benito (1993) was a 307-minute Italian made-for-TV movie starring then 32-year-old Antonio Banderas in the titular role. It was later released as a film in the U.S. by Lions Gate Entertainment. The movie charts Mussolini’s rise from young laborer to socialist revolutionary leader, ending prior to his creation of the National Fascist Party. The topic of pre-World War I Italian socialism is a little too esoteric for American audiences, so Lions Gate probably released this in the U.S. to capitalize on Antonio Banderas’ popularity.

It seems strange to think of 20th Century Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as a left-wing political figure, but if it wasn’t for World War I, that may have been his claim to fame. Mussolini’s father, Alessandro Mussolini, was a socialist who named his son Benito Amilcare Andrea after Mexican president Benito Juárez and Italian socialists Andrea Costa and Amilcare Cipriani. As a young man, Mussolini avoided military service by hiding in Switzerland, where he studied Marxist philosophy, became active in labor unions, and wrote for the socialist newspaper L’Avvenire del Lavoratore. Back in Italy, he joined the Socialist Party and became editor of its newspaper, Avanti.

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Unfortunately, Just Mercy Was Based on a True Story

This film about one of the most egregious modern cases of racism and injustice mostly sticks to the facts.

One thing I didn’t like about Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) was that it invented events to make its antagonists more menacing than they really were. It’s a habit in Hollywood to insert or amplify racism in historical films, which is weird because there are plenty of actual historical examples of racism to make movies about.

Case in point: Just Mercy (2019), written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham and directed by Cretton, based on the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Just Mercy follows the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was wrongly convicted of the 1986 murder of a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama and sent to death row. Years later, attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) successfully appealed McMillian’s conviction and won his freedom.

McMillian, who was having a very public affair with a white woman named Karen Kelly, was hosting a fish fry at his home with his wife, Minnie (Karan Kendrick), surrounded by about a dozen witnesses, when the murder occurred. Despite this, Sheriff Tom Tate (Michael Harding) arrested him for the crime. And despite not yet being convicted, he was sent to death row while awaiting trial.

Judge Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. (yes, that was actually his name) moved the trial to a different county where it would have a majority white jury. The judge overrode the jury’s decision of life imprisonment and imposed the death penalty. McMillian sat on Alabama’s death row from 1988 to 1993, when the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled he had been wrongfully convicted.

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No Safe Spaces: Powerful but Incomplete

Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager deliver a powerful rebuke to radical campus activism, but fail to explore its root causes.

I watched Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager’s new documentary No Safe Spaces (2019) in a nearly-sold out theater in Alexandria last night. While it was a decent summery of the latest threats to freedom of speech and expression, and the audience loved it, there were some glaring omissions that left the film feeling incomplete.

If you’ve been paying attention over the past several years, you’ve noticed the rise in political activism on both the right and left has led to some alarming developments, including riots, street clashes, and an effort to “de-platform” opposing views on the Internet. No public space has been at the forefront of this conflict more than college campuses.

No Safe Spaces highlights two of the most dramatic episodes of campus activism and political correctness run amok: Bret Weinstein and the 2017 Evergreen State College riots, and the 2016 riots at California State University that targeted conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro.

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Nicolas Cage’s H.P. Lovecraft Adaptation Looks Promising

The first promo shots from a new H.P. Lovecraft adaptation written and directed by Richard Stanley starring Nicolas Cage has been released. Color Out of Space will be an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space”, about a family corrupted by a strange meteor.

The Colour Out of Space” is one of my favorite Lovecraft tales. H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction has been notoriously difficult to translate into film, though the initial concept art from this project looks promising. This short story has been loosely adapted into film numerous times, most recently in the 2010 German film Die Farbe (re-titled The Color Out of Space), which I haven’t seen.

According to Comingsoon.net, “The Color Out of Space is described as a story of cosmic terror about The Gardners, a family who moves to a remote farmstead in rural New England to escape the hustle of the 21st century. They are busy adapting to their new life when a meteorite crashes into their front yard. The mysterious aerolite seems to melt into the earth, infecting both the land and the properties of space-time with a strange, otherworldly color. To their horror, the Gardner family discover that this alien force is gradually mutating every life form that it touches … including them.”

Writer-director Richard Stanley is notoriously known for being unceremoniously fired from The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996) and subsequently hiding out in the jungle and working as an extra. He never made another Hollywood film. Perhaps this makes him ideal for adapting H.P. Lovecraft? It’ll be interesting to see what he can accomplish after all these years.

Of course, Nicolas Cage will bring his own unique brand of acting to the project.  I’m looking forward to seeing this one in theaters!

Life After Beth

A quirky premise isn’t enough to carry an entire film.

A boyfriend unsuccessfully copes with his girlfriend’s passing and resurrection during a zombie outbreak in Life After Beth (2014). Written and directed by Jeff Baena, this comedy-horror manages to be neither terrifying nor funny. Life After Beth has its moments, but its poorly thought out horror elements interrupt and undermine what could have otherwise been an interesting exploration of love, loss, and regret, and the importance of letting go.

Young Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) is devastated when his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), dies from a snakebite. His parents, Noah (Paul Reiser) and Judy (Cheryl Hines), urge him to move on. Zach becomes suspicious to the point of paranoia when Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), abruptly stop speaking with him and cloister themselves in their home.

Things get complicated when Zach discovers Beth has returned from the dead. Her parents consider it a miracle, but Zach just can’t accept the new status quo. Beth’s strange behavior, as well as the appearance of other long-dead people from his past, has him asking questions. His testosterone-fueled brother, Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), springs into action as the zombie apocalypse unfolds. Can Zach discover a cure for the zombie outbreak and save his lost love?

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Child’s Play: Are You My Best Friend?

A murderous doll with the ability to control smart devices runs amok in this fresh reboot.

Written by Tyler Burton Smith and directed by Lars Klevberg, Child’s Play (2019) is a remake of the 1988 horror film of the same name. In this version, Chucky is a sabotaged smart-toy who learns violence is cool by watching human behavior. As such, the supernatural elements of the original have been removed. What remains is a contemporary morality play about the dangers of smart technology and our addiction to electronic devices.

Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) is a single mother living in a distressed urban neighborhood with her son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman). Andy’s loneliness leads Karen to give him a Buddi doll (voiced by Mark Hamill) for his birthday. Though visibly dysfunctional, the doll (which calls itself Chucky because it has to, I guess?) imprints on Andy and quickly becomes overprotective.

Andy soon meets two other kids in the apartment building, Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio), and the trio play pranks on Karen’s jerkish boyfriend, Shane (David Lewis). Detective Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry) suspects something is amiss. Can Shane and friends rein in Chucky’s violent tendencies before it’s too late?

Child’s Play is the latest horror-franchise reboot, and it was only a matter of time. In the horror pantheon, I would put Child’s Play on a second or third tier behind obvious powerhouses like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th. Its premise of a killer doll is just a little too campy, and the original films do play up the humorous element. Still, Child’s Play has a reliable fan base.

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