Movies: The Exception and Wonder Woman

It is summer and there is nothing better than spending time in cool, air conditioned movie theaters – especially if you live in Phoenix.  Here are a couple of movies well worth seeing.

The Exception (The Kaiser’s Last Kiss)

I enjoyed this WWII movie starring Christopher Plummer as Kaiser William II who is in exile in the Netherlands as the Germans aggressively begin to move throughout Europe.  Lily James is a young Jewish woman, Mieke, working in his house.  Jai Courtney plays Capt. Stefan Brandt, a Nazi Captain wounded physically and mentally by a battle in Poland who is assigned to the Kaiser as his body guard.  Brandt is “the exception” to the rule that all Nazi’s are murderous villains.  This movie is a little more black and white than some of the recent WWII films that give their characters a great deal more nuance yet it is well done with the requisite tension and suspense.

Mieke is a spy working for Great Britain and she and Brandt develop an immediate sexual relationship upon meeting.  It is unclear whether she initiates the relationship in her role as a spy but it quickly develops into a deep bond with both characters risking their lives for each other.  While their relationship is central to the plot, it is Plummer who shines every moment he is on screen as the irascible monarch whose character is complex and spirited.  He plays along with his wife who works very hard to ingratiate them with the Nazi regime in order to return to Berlin as royalty despite knowing that he will never again be a German monarch.  His wife successfully gets Himmler to dine at their home and we get a brief glimpse into the atrocities that the Nazi’s are planning in a wonderful sequence by the actor Eddie Marsan.

There have been a million WWII movies but there still seems to be an infinite number of stories to mine from the era and this film is no exception.  It just opened this week and is competing against a lot of Indies but if you can catch it, it is worthwhile to watch Christopher Plummer in a fine performance.  It is unlikely that we will see the 87-year-old actor in many more movies so catch him while you can – he is a gem.

Wonder Woman

I loved Wonder Woman.  For someone who spends most of their movie viewing hours watching depressing Indies, it was fun to see a well-done blockbuster.  What is particularly nice is that this is a movie by women, about women.  There aren’t too many of those on the market – especially in this genre.  From start to finish, I enjoyed the journey of Diana (Wonder Woman) from her origins on the idyllic island of Themyscira to modern day Paris.  Her life is shown in flashbacks with the bulk of the story about her relationship with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who she rescues when his plane crashes off her Island during WWI.  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is perfect in this role as is Pine.  The rest of the supporting cast is excellent as well including the great Robin Wright as Diana’s aunt and David Thewlis as the film’s evil villain.  It is particularly enjoyable to see Thewlis who played the loveable Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies play the opposite type of role (as he has also recently done in this season’s Fargo where he is unrecognizable).  I think he has successfully left the Lupin character behind.

The story moves quickly as Trevor and WW go to the front lines of the war – she to find the evil god of war and Trevor to stop the Germans from releasing poisonous gas that will kill millions.  The relationship between them slowly builds in a way that is both sweet and effective.  The action becomes more intense as WW discovers new ways to utilize her powers.  It is all fun, the music supports the action, the CGI and special effects are wonderful (as are the costumes) and it all culminates in an excellent DC comic film which competes with the best of the Marvel movies.

There have been a lot of super hero movies over the last decade, some better than others but it is great to have one with a female lead and director be well reviewed and a box office hit.  If you have skipped movies in this genre, this might be one to check out.  I urge everyone to go see Wonder Woman.


A Great Book; Very Good TV Series and a Fun Movie

I don’t usually post this way but I had a book, a movie and one TV show this week (the end of August is really a TV dead period!) so here goes!


The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defection Story by Hyeonseo Lee

I get emails every day from BookBub letting me know e-book sales on Amazon. I don’t look at them all the time because it takes some doing going through the books and researching what might be worth grabbing for a cost of $0 to $1.99. I should do it more often because you can really find a gem that you otherwise would have no idea existed. That is how I came upon this wonderful non-fiction story of Ms. Lee’s unbelievable escape from North Korea.

It is unusual to gain a glimpse of life in this secret society but Hyeonseo takes us through her first 18 years growing up in North Korea and what being a citizen of this repressive communist regime entails. As fascinating as this is, it is the story of her escape that is the highlight of the book for me. It provides a riveting chronology of first getting to China then living in multiple places there and then on to South Korea in a series of moves precipitated by her being discovered. If that weren’t enough, the story then follows an even more perilous journey to get her family out of North Korea. The prose is straightforward (she had a collaborator) and simple but extremely compelling as Ms. Lee navigates life in these countries so different than her birth nation.

Hyeonseo Lee is clearly an extraordinary young woman, intelligent, beautiful and determined. How she was able to figure out survival skills, including languages in China and North Korea is remarkable. It has to be incredibly difficult to break the bonds of indoctrination and leave everything she knew behind. I was in awe of this woman at every point in her journey. I have often wondered why more North Koreans don’t leave and I now have a better understanding of the brainwashing that occurs in a country that controls by fear and intimidation. It is also fascinating to explore just how different the cultures in China, South Korea and North Korea are.

This book has a 4.4 rating on Goodreads, which is extremely high. Although I doubt it is still available on Amazon for $1.99, it is worth picking up at the library or paying full price to read this wonderful autobiography.


Finales: The Night Of (HBO)

The Night Of completed it’s run last night. The first show in this 8 episode miniseries was one of the best premiers I have ever seen. It followed Naz’s ill-fated “borrowing” of his father’s cab to go to a party in Manhattan through his waking up the next morning to find that a stranger he went home with was dead in her bed and he had no idea what happened. It was riveting. From there, the series stalled somewhat. It seemed to take forever in the next couple of episodes to get Naz situated and charged but then it picked up again.

Not everything worked in this series. The biggest issue on Twitter seemed to be the continual focus on John Stone’s eczema but Stone was clearly the best character in the show. Not only was did the writers give us a great persona but he was brilliantly acted by John Turturro. The character of Chandra, the inexperienced lawyer was not good (although the actress was fine). She made many questionable decisions, particularly in the last episode that just didn’t make any sense given what had occurred up to that point. Also, the ending with the probably identification of the killer was not well constructed. There really wasn’t any reason to even guess that this minor character might have had anything to do with the crime.

This is not an upbeat series. It delivers a dark indictment of the legal system and the effect on all involved from judges, to attorneys to those accused of crimes. None of the participants in this process came out ok in this show – except maybe a cat. The system did them all in. I did think the finale did a nice job of wrapping everything thing up and showing how this crime had impacted all involved. I hope that if there is a sequel to this that they do another case and don’t continue with these characters – I think the way the writers resolved the case was good and they should leave it as is.

This series gives us a little more hope that HBO can still deliver a very good drama. It was a nice summer surprise.


Star Trek

I am probably the last person on earth (at least among those who plan to see the movie) to see Star Trek as it opened shortly before I left on vacation and I just didn’t have time to see it until now. As a Star Trek fan, it was worth the wait. I have really enjoyed the first two JJ Abrams Star Trek reboots. This latest film in the franchise has a new Director, Justin Lin, (JJ was doing Star Wars) and has some of Lin’s “Fast and Furious” trademarks. The movie is non-stop action with extraordinary special effects that are in many cases quite stunning. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and company are fun to be around again even if the plot is pretty over the top at times. Even with different actors and much better technology,it has the same heart as the Star Trek that premiered 50 years ago and that I would rush home from Friday night Dancing School class to watch.

In short, don’t look for a stellar plot or even one that makes sense. It’s a fun bunch of characters in outer space in situations that are often pretty ridiculous and the good guys always win. It was really sad to see Anton Yelchin’s final performance after his tragic death and unfortunately Idris Elba was totally wasted as Krall. If you are a Trekkie, you’ll enjoy this movie and if SyFy is not your thing, there are other films out there.


Movies: Hell or High Water


Hell or High Water

I’m not a fan of Westerns – either classic or the neo Western genre of which Hell or High Water is the latest addition. However, this film has received rave reviews and is considered the best film so far in 2016 by a number of critics so I decided to see it and I’m glad I did. It is excellent – from the writing to the acting to the directing as well as the cinematography and the music which compliments the serious and difficult subject matter. Warning – there is some violence in this “R” rated movie (not unexpected given the subject matter) in this timely social commentary.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers living in rural West Texas who take up robbing branches of the Texas Midland Bank in order to obtain enough money to save the family ranch for Toby’ s children. We are led to believe that the Bank has not only unfairly treated the Howards but is instrumental in the depressed state of the local economy.  Jeff Bridges plays a crusty old Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement who is chasing down the bank robbers while continually spitting out racist jokes to his part Mexican/ part Comanche partner played by Gil Birmingham. Jeff Bridges could have just rolled out of True Grit into this role – same character and he plays it like the pro he is. All of the actors are great in this movie but the huge surprise for me is Chris Pine who shows that he has depth far beyond Captain Kirk and his Brad Pitt -like looks match up with Pitt’s acting chops.

The script is by Taylor Sheridan who also wrote Scario and the intensity of emotion and non-stop action in both films is similar. I loved the cinematography – the rich landscapes of West Texas combined with the stark reality of dying ranches and boarded up towns. The score by Nick Cave is perfectly matched to the serious plot it supports and is as haunting as the film. Reminded me of his tract “Oh Children” which was so effectively used in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 as the song Hermione and Harry dance to as their futures looked desperately bleak – the moods being similar.

The movie is difficult to watch and there are compelling moral dilemmas. For example, how can you support the brothers with their actions having the expected unintended consequences – but you do.   The concealed weapon proponents will feel their case is made as will the anti-gun contingent as the final bank robbery plays out. The issue of the impact of the economic downturn, particularly in areas like rural Texas makes the rise of both the Trump and Sanders platforms seem more understandable. There are so many layers of this film to revel in and think about. It is one that I will see again even though I tend to cringe with the violence in movies like this. See this movie – it is worth it.