Documentary Movie Review: The White Helmets (2016) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “W” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “W” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Waking Sleeping Beauty, WattstaxWhat Happened, Miss Simone?, Wild AfricaThe Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and Word Wars.

 

TitleThe White Helmets
Release Date: September 16, 2016
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
Production Company: Grain Media | Violet Films
Summary/Review:

This short but harrowing documentary  focuses on a group of volunteers in the Syrian Civil Defence – known as The White Helmets – in the war-torn city of Aleppo. The organization was formed in 2014 in response to Syrian government forces and their Russian allies targeting civilian populations. Their main responsibility is to help recover people trapped in the rubble of bombed-out buildings, saving the lives of thousands of people across Syria, as well as recovering the bodies of the dead.

The movie provides a mix of hope and humanity at the volunteers who put their lives on the line to rescue their neighbors, mixed with the bitterness that this cruel war never should have happened in the first place.  A key part of the film features the rescue of a week-old baby that was trapped under debris for 16 hours.  Later we see the White Helmets reuniting with the “miracle baby” as a healthy and happy toddler.

For part of the film, the volunteers we are following go across the border to Turkey for more in-depth training.  There they observe the strangeness that comes from finding peace and quiet just by crossing a line on a map. While they are there, one of the volunteers also learns that his brother died in an attack and they all deal with the grief and guilt of that loss.

The movie is heartbreaking and hopeful and worth watching to learn about the horrors still being faced in part of our world.

Rating: ****

Book Review: When the Irish Invaded Canada by Christopher Klein


Author: Christopher Klein
Title: When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom
Publication Info: Doubleday (2019)
Summary/Review:

Several years back I first heard about how Irish revolutionaries attempted to invade Canada from the United States and thought to myself “That would make a good movie!”  But I never knew the details until I read this history book.

The invasions, known as the Fenian Raids, occurred from 1866 to 1871 with attempts by Irish Republicans to cross the border from Maine to New Brunswick, Vermont and northern New York to Quebec, Buffalo to Ontario, and the Dakota Territory into Manitoba.  The purpose of these raids was to capture territory of the United Kingdom in hopes of drawing supporters to the cause and perhaps even exchanging Canada for Ireland’s independence.

Klein sets the stage for the Fenian Raids by establishing the 19th-century perspective that Americans had on borders.  The practice of filibustering, private military expeditions across borders, was well known at the time, especially with Mexico.  The United States and Canada also had many border conflicts and Manifest Destiny looked north as well as west, with many Americans assuming that all or parts of Canada would one day become the United States.  Finally, there was resentment against Great Britain for tacitly supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War which made it possible that some people within government might turn a blind eye to incursions across the Canadian border.

Ireland had suffered the potato blight and Great Hunger of the 1840s and 1850s which caused the death of over a million and the emigration of at least a million more.  The survivors within Ireland used the cavalier indifference of the British to their starvation as impetus to revive the fight for independence.  The Young Ireland movement of the 1840s was succeeded by the secret society of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  With so many Irish immigrants in the United States, it became a place where Irish Republicans could raise money and organize freely.  The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in New York City in 1858 where they established headquarters and a government-in-exile.

Or I should say, two headquarters, because much like Irish Republican movements throughout history, the Fenian Brotherhood was divided by infighting.  One of the contentious issues was whether to invade Canada or to focus solely and supporting an uprising in Ireland.  Klein notes that both Fenian branches would succumb to popular pressure and support raids in to Canada at different times.

Irish-born soldiers made up a large proportion of the men who fought on the front lines on both sides of the Civil War.  Some of them specifically enlisted in order to gain the military experience they could then use to fight for Ireland’s liberation, and in the early raids, the officers and troops were predominately Civil War veterans.  The Irish invaders had success early on at the Battle of Ridgeway, across the Niagara River from Buffalo, on June 2, 1866 where they defeated reservists and militias from Toronto and Hamilton.  This proved to be the only victory in the cause for Irish independence in-between  the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Irish War of Independence in 1919.

The raids more typically were a comedy of errors. The Fenian Brotherhood faced as much trouble with the United States government enforcing the Neutrality Act as they did with British and Canadian military forces.  But hubris and lack of organization were their biggest obstacles.  Again and again, the Fenians gathered together a small band to strike into Canada with the optimistic belief that once they start fighting people would flock to their cause, and they’d even gain support from French Canadians and the American government.  On one of the last raids with the supposed goal of linking up with the Métis in Manitoba, the Fenians not only failed to make any allies but they also didn’t even manage to cross the border.

One of the great ironies is that Fenian Raids did help bring independence to a country, but not for Ireland.  There was division among the provinces of Canada before the raids, but the fear of invasion lead many people to support Canadian Confederation in 1867. The Fenian Raids also played their part in the longer struggle for Irish independence, especially the key role of Irish Americans as fundraisers and organizers which persists to this day. Klein’s book takes an historical curiosity and fleshes out a story of a campaign that consumed decades of the lives of many Irish Republicans. He demonstrates how invading Canada seemed a plausible and compelling idea as well as showing why it ultimately failed.  And yes, this would still make a great movie.

Favorite Passages:

The Canadian plan offered several scenarios that could result in Ireland’s independence. An attack could divert British army troops from Ireland, increasing the chances of a successful IRB uprising. It could perhaps even trigger a war between Great Britain and the United States, which had cast its land-hungry eyes northward after having expanded west and south in the prior three decades. Under another scenario, the Fenians could seize Canada and trade the colony back to the British in return for Ireland. In essence, a geopolitical kidnapping of Canada, with its ransom being Ireland’s independence. Even the plan’s proponents understood that the chances of success weren’t in their favor. But the odds would be against the Irish no matter what they did. A slim chance is all Ireland ever faced when challenging the British over the past seven centuries. The likelihood of failure might have been high, but it was guaranteed if they did nothing at all.

Recommended books:

  • The Great Dan: A Biography of Daniel O’Connell by Charles Chenevix Trench
  • The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan
  • The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace by Tim Pat Coogan
  • Biting At the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair by Padraig O’Malley

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 25


Back Story :: The Real Martin Luther King: Reflecting on MLK 50 Years After His Death

Breaking through the softened, public persona of Martin Luther King to reveal the radicalism of his life work.

Best of the Left :: Our Longest War Has Been a Lie All Along (The Afghanistan Papers)

Back in 2001, I stated that a full-scale military invasion of Afghanistan, was not only immoral but a strategically unsound response to the criminal acts of the September 11th attacks. I have sadly been proven correct as the United States remains mired in this deadly quagmire going on 19 years.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: 4′ 33″

The story behind John Cage’s famous composition and why it’s more than a joke or a gimmick.

Have You Heard? :: History Wars: How Politics Shape Textbooks

How history is taught in schools is guided by textbooks, and the content of those textbooks is heavily shaped by politics, especially the government educational policy of two large states, California and Texas.


Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Classic Movie Review: Paths of Glory (1957)


Title: Paths of Glory
Release Date: December 25, 1957
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Bryna Productions
Summary/Review:

Paths of Glory is the earliest major motion picture directed by Stanley Kubrick.  Released just over a decade after World War II when Hollywood was still releasing heroic war movies, Paths of Glory is stunning in not only being anti-war but in depicting the military leadership as incompetent and cruelly cynical. Now this is set in World War I in the French Army, so there’s some distance from the American World War II movies, but all the actors are Americans with clearly American accents (except the Generals who affect something like a British accent).

Kirk Douglass portrays Colonel Dax, commanding officer of the 701st Infantry Regiment caught between the gloomy low morale of the troops who see no point in losing their lives to maybe gain a few meters of land, and the Generals who consider a 55% casualty rate acceptable.  When an attack on  German position called the Anthill fails, Brigadier General Paul Mireau (George Macready) wants troops shot for cowardice, and eventually settles on having one man arbitrarily selected from each of the divisions to be executed as an example.  Dax acts as the defense attorney for the three men in the farcical court martial that ensues.

I don’t like all of Kubrick’s films I’ve seen, but I’m always impressed with the things that Kubrick does in his movies.  The film is crisp and clear for a movie from 60+ years.  He makes good use of excess space, setting the small trial in a colossal ballroom much like Jack Torrance would later be seen writing in an oversize hotel lobby.  And there are great tracking shots of Dax walking through the trenches and the condemned men walking to the firing squad.  The depiction of the battle is a startling scene of war that’s not only impressive for its time but impressive for any time.

If there’s one great flaw for this movie is that it lacks any subtlety.  The generals are basically mustache-twirling villains while the condemned men are woeful villains.  Only Colonel Dax is allowed to have any complexity as a character.  Oddly, the most humanist scene of the movie comes at the end and doesn’t appear to have much to do with the rest of the story. A German woman (Christiane Harlan, the future spouse of Kubrick) captured by the French is forced to perform to the soldiers in a tavern, and they jeer her at first, but then as the song becomes familiar, they start to sing along, many of them weeping.  It’s a heartbreaking moment of shared humanity in an inhumane setting

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Twelve O’Clock High (1949)


Title: Twelve O’Clock High
Release Date: December 21, 1949
Director: Henry King
Production Company: Twentieth Century Fox
Summary/Review:

In the early days of American involvement in WWII, the 918th Bomb Group gets a reputation as a “tough luck” group due to heavy loses and low morale. Group commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) is determined to be too sympathetic to his men and relieved of command. Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) takes over as group commander and implements strict discipline and attempts to get the group a victory to improve confidence. This includes doing things like putting all the flight crew deemed “incompetent” into a bomber named The Leper Colony.

Savage’s ways seem harsh, but on the other hand his insistence on keeping to the plan reduces losses for the group. Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) is a WWI vet and civilian lawyer who becomes an early ally to Savage’s system (in fact, the film is framed by Stovall’s post-war reminiscences of the war). It proves to be an interesting philosophical dilemma at the heart of this gritty war drama.

Unlike earlier WWII movies that had an optimistic, propaganda purpose, Twelve O’Clock High depicts the true psychological and physical toll on the flight crews. With the people-focused approach, much of the film is set on the base. Only late in the film do we see a sortie which features actual film from WWII air battles expertly intercut with the cast of the movie.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Rome, Open City (1945)


Title: Rome, Open City
Release Date: September 27, 1945
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production Company: Excelsa Film
Summary/Review:

Filmed in the final days of World War II, Rome, Open City is a neorealistic film depicting a fictionalized account of the Italian Resistance Movement in 1944. There’s not much acknowledgement that Italy was an Axis power as by the time film begins, Rome is under control of the occupying German forces and the Italian fascist puppet government.  The main figures of the resistance in the movie are communist Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), Pina (Anna Magnani), and parish priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi). Don Pietro is supposed to marry Francesco and the visibly pregnant Pina but the crackdown of SS officers seeking Manfredi sets everyone in motion.

The film depicts the grim realities of the deprivation of a wartime city, betrayals, grim torture, and flat out murder.  But the film also contains moments of humanity, particularly Don Pietro’s devotion to protecting the resistance.  And there is hope in the children who assist the resistance and are the future of Italy.  Technically speaking this is a “low-budget film” but considering the conditions under which it was made it is a remarkable artistic achievement.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Lifeboat (1944)


Title: Lifeboat
Release Date: January 11, 1944
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

Since I started my Classic Movie project in August, I’ve watched movies on streaming services on my iPad and DVD on my television.  With the Lifeboat, I took the opportunity to watch a 75th anniversary screening at Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.  And am I ever glad I did, because it is a well-scripted, well-acted, and compelling drama.

The film begins in media res with foreign correspondent Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) alone in the titular lifeboat amid the wreckage of a merchant vessel and a U-boat in the North Atlantic.  She looks particularly well-dressed and highfalutin for the situation, but demonstrates her knowledge and resourcefulness over the course of the film.  Other survivors climb on board, including:

  • Gus Smith (William Bendix), an American merchant marine ashamed of his German ancestry and suffering from an injured leg. He’s kind of your city kid archetype.
  • Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a U.S. Army nurse, a competent and compassionate healer.  Anderson was strong in this role (and also quite beautiful) and I’m surprised that she doesn’t seem to have any other major movie roles.
  • John Kovac (John Hodiak), an engine man crewman, who is the “tough but fair” man who takes the leadership role over the survivors.
  • Charles J. “Ritt” Rittenhouse Jr. (Henry Hull), a prosperous industrialist who initially takes the leadership role, but defers to Kovac’s experience. Nevertheless he remains a more compassionate voice in conflict with Kovac.
  • Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), the ship’s steward, who proves to the most heroic among the survivors and a quiet leader.  Joe is the only Black character in the movie and is written as a stereotypical/token character but Lee’s performance really elevates Joe.
  • Stanley “Sparks” Garrett (Hume Cronyn), radioman, who is a friend of Gus and forms a bond with Alice.
  • Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), a young British woman who is traumatized by the death of her infant child.

The last person to climb on board is a survivor of the U-boat wreck, Willi (Walter Slezak).  His presence on the lifeboat is the center of much of the conflict in the film as some, particularly Kovac, argue that he should be allowed to drown, while Connie, Ritt, and Stanley argue that would be inhumane and that he should be held as a prisoner. For a movie made in the middle of World War II, Willi is presented as a complex character and sometimes sympathetically, but ultimately untrustworthy.  The key lesson for viewers watching this film in 2019 is “Don’t let Nazis take charge!”

In addition to their German prisoner, the crew of the lifeboat have to contend with the loss of their food, water, and supplies, no navigational tools, Gus’ leg turning gangrenous, and a vicious storm.  Amid the depiction of conflict and deprivation in a close space, there are still many moments of humanity and even humor.  For example, there’s a running gag of Connie inadvertently losing her prized possessions to the sea. The final scenes of the movie are set among a stunning reenactment of a battle at sea and is suitably terrifying.

This is an excellent movie and I’m glad I saw it on the big screen.  Hitchcock’s direction is terrific and Bankhead, Lee, and Slezak in particular put in great performances in a strong cast.  It’s also interesting to note that the screenplay is by John Steinbeck, his first fictional work created for film.  Take the opportunity to see this movie if it plays at your local arthouse cinema.

Rating: *****

Book Review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson


Author: Neal Stephenson
Title: Cryptonomicon
Publication Info: New York : Avon Press, 1999.
Previously Read by the Same AuthorQuicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, Odalisque, Bonanza, The Juncto, Solomon’s Gold, Currency, and The System of the World
Summary/Review:

A decade or so ago I read and enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s 8-book series, The Baroque Cycle.  I’ve finally followed up on reading this single-volume tome that has connections to that series, albeit set in a different time.  All of these books are historical novels that incorporate Stephenson’s interests in cryptography, mathematics, currency, banking, and philosophy.  They also include characters from the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families and the mysterious Enoch Root.  Cryptonomicon was published prior to The Baroque Cycle, but the latter is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, while Cryptonomicon is a 20th century story.

Cryptonomicon features two interweaving plot lines.  The first story is set during World War II and focuses the Allies’ effort to win the war by breaking Germany’s enigma code.  Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is an American mathmetician who works with the historical figure Alan Turing at Bletchley Park and is put in charge of a detachment that stages events behind enemy lines to deceive the Germans on how the Allies are gathering intelligence, when in actuality they’ve broken Enigma.  Bobby Shaftoe is an experienced Marine Raider drafted into the detachment who has various adventures around the world – many of them ludicrous.  Goto Dengo is a Japanese officer and engineer who suffers some of the worst effects of the Allies cryptographic knowledge in some of the most gruesome descriptions of war in the book, and then is put in charge of Japan’s efforts to bury gold in caverns in the Phillipines.

The other storyline is set in the 1990s and tells the story of a tech startup company co-lead by Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence’s grandson).  His company sets up a data haven on fictional island sultanate near the Phillipines.  He hires Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe (Bobby’s son) and his daughter Amy to do the underwater surveying for laying cables.  Complications arise when the discover gold under the sea. The ageless Enoch Root plays a part in both stories.

I found the World War II story more interesting than the 1990s story.  There just isn’t much that grabbed me aboutthe tech-bros and the nerd culture only faintly hides a toxic masculinity.  In fact, this book is a sausage fest, with Amy Shaftoe the only promiment female character, and her major role is as Randy’s love interest.  The Baroque Cycle was also tilted heavily toward male characters but it least it had Eliza who had agency as a spy and financier and was a major driver of the plot.

So I guess this is a half-good novel? Albeit the signifigance of the WWII story would be less apparent without the 1990s story.

Favorite Passages:

Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker’s game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.


“You know what this is? It’s one of those men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus things.” “I have not heard of this phrase but I understand immediately what you are saying.” “It’s one of those American books where once you’ve heard the title you don’t even need to read it,” Randy says. “Then I won’t.”


“Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior? I think not; at least then you are conscious of the distortions. Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.”


“But before this war, all of this gold was out here, in the sunlight. In the world. Yet look what happened.” Goto Dengo shudders. “Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made every day by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By schoolchildren doing their lessons, improving their minds. Tell those men that if they want wealth, they should come to Nippon with me after the war. We will start businesses and build buildings.”

Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending August 25th


BackStory :: In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud

Stories of the United States and nuclear weapons, including the hotel with the secret bunker for Congress, nuclear bomb testing and the birth of the Las Vegas tourist industry, and women in the Manhattan Project.

To The Best of Our Knowledge :: Being Sincere in the Cynical World

Different stories of maintaining sincerity among the world’s cynicism.

HUB History :: Amelia  Earhart in Boston

Before Amelia Earhart become a famed, groundbreaking aviator, she was a social worker in a Boston settlement house.

Radiolab :: Post No Evil

The evolving document that guides what is allowed and what is forbidden on Facebook.

Start Making Sense :: Democrats: Centrism is Not the Answer!

Book Review: Human Nature by Paul Cornell


AuthorHuman Nature
TitlePaul Cornell
Publication Info: London : BBC Books, 2015 (originally published May 1995)
Summary/Review:

In this novel, the Doctor has himself genetically modified so he can experience life as a human. Forgetting his real identity, the Doctor believes he is a Scottish teacher named John Smith at a boy’s school in rural England in 1914.  If this sounds familiar to Doctor Who tv viewers, it’s because Cornell adapted this book as the two-part episode “Human Nature/Family of Blood” in Series 3 with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor/John Smith.  It’s best not to think of the television adaptation while reading the book as the stories differ in many ways.

Cornell’s basic idea was to have a story featuring the Doctor in a romantic relationship with a fellow teacher, Joan Redfern.  Again, in the present day we’ve seen the Doctor fall in love with Rose, snog Madame Pompadour, and marry River Song, so the elaborate plot of making the Doctor a human for him to experience romance would be excessive. Apart from the love story, this book is a good exploration of being human and the Doctor’s character.

On the one hand this is a brutal and gory story. The villainous alien Aubertides are merciless in slaughtering (and eating) anyone who gets in their way.  In response, the leaders of the school are willing to mobilize the boys into a military unit to fight back. There’s even a disturbing scene early in the book where the school boys murder one of their own.

On the other hand, John Smith, while still in a human guise is able to determine a better way.  To throw away the guns, lead the children to safety, attempt diplomacy, and then win through guile.  The willingness of the human characters in this book to support and sacrifice for one another shows our species at it’s best.

Like many Virgin New Adventures, there’s a surplus of side characters and interwoven sideplots that could be excised to make a tighter, more focused adventure.  But it’s still a gripping read and Doctor Who at it’s best.

Favorite Passages:

“I can see why Rocastle thinks that way.  It’s attractive.  Imagine, never having to make any decisions.  Because of honor. And etiquette. And patriotism. You could live like a river flowing downhill, hopping from one standard response to the other. Honour this. Defend that.”

“‘Isn’t it odd,’ opined Alexander, ‘how close masculinity is to melodrama?'”

Rating: ****