Thursday, October 30, 2014

White Bird in a Blizzard and St. Vincent (plus shorter comments on Fury and Last Days in Vietnam)

     Problematical Parenting
                         Review by Ken Burke
                                         White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki)
A teenager is beset with 2 confounding situations, her mother's strange disappearance and her boyfriend’s sudden avoidance of sex, which fuel an intriguing plot.
                                         St. Vincent (Ted Melfi)
Vince, with his gambling, drinking, and smoking habits, seems to be a poor choice for babysitting but his new neighbor needs just that for her young son.  Problems ensue.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting (please note that Two Guys critic Ken Burke is a bit odd—in more ways than one—using a 5-star-rating-system but rarely going to the level of 4 ½ or 5 stars, reserving those rankings for films that have been or should be acknowledged as time-honored masterpieces so that a 4 is about the best you can hope for from star-stingy Ken).  But we ask you to be aware that the links we recommend within our many reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.

But one more thing first:  If you’d like to Like us on Facebook you’re welcome to find us on our Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark page by typing that name into their “Search for people, places and things” box or just Google twoguysinthedark.  We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!]

 This week’s comments are about 2 very different cinematic opportunities—the first being a strong coming-of-age-drama with a murder-mystery-twist (And a clumsy, too-allusive-title, but when you’re adapting from a novel and want to hang on to your already-intrigued-audience, what can you do?), White Bird in a Blizzard, and the second being a sort of Man-Against-the-World-type of conflict comedy (one of the oldest of movie structures) with Bill Murray in typical (but effective) rejection of most all that passes for decency in civilized societies—but I find enough commonalities in their essential premises, of people who have difficulties making their ways through life forcing their children to be impacted in the process, that I’ve stirred the reviews together (although the comments are kept distinct enough to help focus on just 1 of them if that’s your preference) so here we go into the unqualified-realm of family dysfunctions (one of my wonderful wife, Nina’s, most cherished themes, so she was quite taken with both of them—you may be too as either is worth your time to explore, although I’d say there’s ultimately more going on in White Bird … —although you should heed my Spoiler Warnings above because this flight through a Blizzard’s just opening on Halloween weekend in my San Francisco area, possibly yours as well).

What Happens: In White Bird in a Blizzard we begin with the fall-turns-to-winter-season of 1988 as 17-year-old Kat Conner (Shailene Woodley) is completely mystified by 2 strange occurrences: the unexpected disappearance of her mother, Eve (Eva Green), and the sudden hesitancy by her neighbor-boyfriend, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), to maintain their active sex lives as her hormones have kicked into high gear, especially after she’s lost baby-fat-weight (we never see her chubby, though), enhancing her notable physical attraction.  She’s really more concerned about the sex as she had a difficult relationship with Mom (there are even scenes that set us up for the unfolding mystery aspect of this story—when Eve’s disappearance begins to seem like homicide is involved—where Mom seems to be cozying up to Phil, much to Kat’s further displeasure).  Time goes on (a superimposed graphic tells us that it’s now spring 1991 with Kat back home on a break from her first year at college, a bit confusing for me because she seemed like a high-school-senior when we first meet her [it’s mentioned she’ll be turning 18 in a few weeks], so she’d presumably graduate in spring 1989, then be off to college that fall [there’s no indication that she took a year off for some reason]) but Kat’s now getting more interested in her mother’s disappearance, especially with the implication that her father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), might have killed her in response to some assumed affair (a suspicion enhanced by his confession to Kat that Eve hardly ever loved him after the initial stages of their courtship).  In flashback scenes we observe Eve becoming bored stiff with her housewife life, even as the sexual aspect of her marriage degenerates to Brock masturbating in the basement to girlie magazines he keeps locked in a filing cabinet (Kat finds them when she discovers the lock’s combination) while Eve pleasures herself upstairs in the bedroom with a vibrator.  To cut to the chase here we eventually (shockingly) find out that the affair was between Brock and Phil (as both of them realized where their real interests lay), Eve caught them one afternoon and couldn’t stop laughing as Brock tried to choke her into silence (Phil ran away immediately) that resulted in her death, then he locked her body in a freezer in the basement (further covered up with old [non-porno] magazines) which Kat finally got the courage to look into (sheer morbid curiosity at that point, with no knowledge yet of the truth)—same lock that used to “protect” Dad's private smut—but she found nothing.  That’s because Dad got wind of her suspicions and moved the body to a grave in the woods the night before she opened the freezer (shades of Bernie [Richard Linklater, 2012; review in our May 24, 2012 posting], except that of both of these bizarre plot twists the latter one’s based on a completely true story).  Brock eventually gets drunk one night in a bar, confesses his crime, then kills himself in jail, allowing Kat, and us, to get filled in on all the details as she leaves her former life behind for good.

 In St. Vincent, the title character (Bill Murray) certainly seems like no saint at the start of the story (although I guess you’d call him a more traditional degenerate with his hands usually holding a cigarette, a whiskey glass, or a racetrack ticket, as compared to our gal, the marvelously-strange Eve, in the previous film whose increasingly-bizarre-behavior in response to the unnerving-mixed-messages from Brock [while he laments her lost love he can’t find the needed response to reconnect with her, even when she attempts to tart herself up with added makeup and a leather mini-skirt]) as he careens from day to day in his local haunts, not even caring when he knocks down part of his front-yard-fence while drunkenly attempting to back his car into the driveway.  Yet, he’s furious when new-neighbor-divorcing-mom Maggie’s (Melissa McCarthy) low-cost-movers back into his tree, causing a large limb to crash down on that same so-called-classic-convertible.  Although Vince’d prefer to spend his days with his pregnant-stripper-prostitute-Russian-friend (and sex-partner, although you don’t see much love involved in their interactions, just the humorous sight of a big-bellied-woman in leopard skin underwear or other revealing costumes humping either him or the pole at Mr. Wedge’s Adult Emporium), Daka (Naomi Watts), he agrees to babysit Maggie’s precocious-but-scrawny-son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), because he desperately needs the $12 an hour.  Along the way in their non-PTA-approved afternoons (which Maggie doesn’t know about), Vincent teaches Oliver how to defend himself against bullies from his new school while the kid helps Vince pick a trifecta at the track, providing his “guardian” with some much-needed cash.  As with White Bird … the crucial details of main characters are revealed slowly so that we eventually find out Vince was a war hero in Vietnam (saving the lives of several comrades), although the experience clearly had its impact (see my general discussion of a couple of current war movies below), plus he poses as a doctor on his regular visits to an Alzheimer’s care center to see his wife, Sandy (Donna Mitchell), who now has no memory of him, but even the rack-track-windfall isn’t enough to pay her mounting bills, plus he’s under the gun (not so metaphorically) to pay back gambling debts to loan-shark Zucko (Terrence Howard) and his goons.  Despite a lot of laughs as this story unfolds (including some sly cynicism from Brother Geraghty [Chris O’Dowd] as Oliver’s teacher in his upscale-Brooklyn-area-Catholic-school, a bus ride from the working class neighborhood of Vince and Maggie—an overworked hospital lab technician, whose unpredictable schedule increases Oliver’s time with slowly-softening Vincent), it ends with more sentimental notes as Sandy dies, Vince’s antics with Oliver result in Maggie getting only shared-custody of her son, and Daka moves in with Vince who’s willing to care for her and her new baby, even as Oliver celebrates Vincent at a school program to explain why some of the students’ everyday acquaintances could be considered as true saints, even without being canonized as such by the church.

So What? The 2 best aspects of White Bird in a Blizzard (which certainly don’t include the poetic-but-clumsy-title, which offers its meaning of how Kat seems lost in a world that increasingly makes no sense to her life, punctuated by her dreams of herself dressed in white trying to navigate a snowstorm as she finds her naked mother huddled up in the drifts) are the acting performances of the continually-blossoming-and-amazing Woodley (who may never rival similarly-aged Jennifer Lawrence [born 1991 for the former, 1990 for the latter] regarding income from their dual-dystopian-series about hellish-futuristic-societies [Divergent and its differently-named-sequels (Neil Burger and others, 2014-planned through 2017) for Shailene, The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, Francis Lawrence; 2012-2015) for Jennifer] that need to be saved by athletic teenagers but whom I hope to see with as many—or more—Oscar trophies as her counterpart as their careers continue to evolve) and the offbeat-presence of Green who seems to have wandered in from David Lynch’s weirdly evocative Mulholland Drive (2001—another great showcase for Naomi Watts, as is St. Vincent).  As Woodley continues to move past her early TV work in a number of series into increasingly more impact on the big screen (The Descendants [Alexander Payne, 2011], The Spectacular Now [James Ponsoldt, 2013; review in our August 30, 2013 posting], The Fault in Our Stars [Josh Boone, 2014; review in our June 12, 2014 posting]), especially in this one where she takes on a central role not connected to a prominent male co-star, she's showing herself to be a commanding presence, as she demonstrates here with a variety of well-played-passions-and-emotions, so much so that when Kat leaves all of her crazy home life behind to fly back to college you can easily believe that despite the years of trauma that she’s endured that she’ll eventually find some stability in the future (although probably not with that on-campus boyfriend [another Oliver, this one played by Jacob Artist] we briefly see toward the beginning who’s trying to get her to quit smoking).

 However, the real treat here—and the one that has the most hope for an Oscar nomination (as Best Supporting Actress) is Green as Eve, a fascinating woman who simultaneously reconciles with and rejects her life as housewife/mother as her former-love-for/now-disconnection-from Brock moves her into surreal territory that increasingly alienates her from her daughter just as she’s become estranged from her lost-identity-husband.  She offers echoes of a series of traumatized women from screens both big (Cary Scott [Jane Wyman] in All That Heaven Allows [Douglas Sirk, 1955], Cathy Whitaker [Julianne Moore] in Far from Heaven [Todd Haynes, 2002], with a dash of Vienna [Joan Crawford] from Johnny Guitar [Nicholas Ray, 1954]) and small (both of the wives of Mad Men’s [created by Matthew Weiner] Don Draper, Betty [January Jones] and Megan [Jessica Paré]), turning in a performance that’s alternately attractive (in a car-crash sort of manner) and repulsive (as we are encouraged to sympathize with Kat in trying to free herself from this neurotic mess of a caregiver who truly does make Vincent look like a preferable choice to help shape a growing mind, even if he prefers to do in a bar).  You also get the pleasure here of seeing some other familiar faces, Oscar-nominees Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe as Beth, one of Kat’s outcast-high-school-friends (Mark Indelicato as yeah-I’m-gay-so-what? Mickey is the other one), and (the marvelous-but-underused-in-films) Angela Bassett as Kat’s therapist, Dr. Thaler, 2 women whose presences always light up a screen, even when they’re in minor roles such as they have here.  Given the intense melodrama that permeates White Bird in a Blizzard, I think you’ll either find it appealing to your wickedly-perverse-tastes or maybe a bit much with the dead-mother-in-the-freezer/father-and-the-boyfriend-being-the-ones-with-the-affair aspects, depending on whether you think such plot points are too extreme or not.  For me, it all connected well, especially as held together by Woodley’s skillful maneuvering through all of it.

 With St. Vincent the primary appeal is in watching Murray bring out the nuances in Vincent McKenna, a guy whose life has taken a toll on his ability to assume that much of anything will work out the way he hopes (his horse race choices rarely do), so that he recedes into a clutter-filled-house, a stock of food that barely exceeds crackers and sardines (“sushi” as he calls the dinner he offers to Oliver when Maggie has to work late on his first day of overseeing the kid), and few friends in the world beyond Daka—and his cat, Felix, who seems to tolerate the chaotic home environment because little is expected of him in the way of companionship (so, in true cat fashion [believe me, I speak from experience here] this long-haired-feline is quite loving with both Vincent and Oliver; Vincent reciprocates with high-quality-cat-food, even though money is a constant problem for him).  It’s not like you’ve never seen Murray in this mode (unlike McCarthy, who here is about as demur as a person can be on screen, constantly frustrating our expectations rather than satisfying them as Murray does), but he’s a real pro at making this genuine jerk still seem acceptably-tolerable, until the end when we’re encouraged to fully embrace him as a somewhat sour bowl of the milk of human kindness (maybe that’s his appeal to the cat) who truly deserves the secular sainthood medal given to him at the public ceremony by Oliver (it would have been interesting to see several other types of neighborhood heroes were being honored that day, but such detail would have been a distraction in the flow of the movie along with lessening the singular distinction being conferred upon Vincent).  If you subtract Vince and Oliver from the equation here, there’s not much left (except a pleasingly-aggressive-embrace by Watts of her almost-down-and-out-immigrant role) because the predictability factor takes over so much:  Oliver stands up to the bully, breaks his nose, they become good friends; Maggie accepts the dual-custody-situation (in truth, she has no other choice), yet Oliver doesn’t seem burdened by the (non-screen) time he spends with Dad; Sandy conveniently dies after no debilitating illness so that the way is open for Victor and Daka to connect at some level unburdened by obligation to the wife lost in her own mind; even the threats from Zucko evaporate after Vincent collapses from a stroke during a confrontation, so apparently his meager belongings and kneecaps are no longer in danger.  Even with all of this “happily ever after” stuff, though, there’s still the sense that Vincent and company have a lot of difficult days ahead of them, with no magical transformations on the horizon so we’re left with a dirt-filled-back yard rather than a yellow brick road to salvation, with Vincent the Old Guy’s (as he introduces himself early on) sainthood dutifully kept in the realm of the secular rather than drifting off into miraculous turnarounds (although Oliver might change that with another shot at a trifecta).

Bottom Line Final Comments: White Bird in a Blizzard is a bit of an odd duck, with its sex-hungry female protagonist (not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just an unusual situation in the world of cinema unless there’s something about it which turns obsessive [Nymphomaniac Volume I and II (Lars von Trier, 2013; reviews in our March 20, 2014 and April 3, 2014 postings)] or focused on the choice between unintended-pregnancy or abortion [Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007]), its family-secret-sexual-dysfunctions for the parents (I’m referring to the clandestine aspects of both older Connors, not criticizing Brock simply because he discovers that he’s gay), the decidedly-odd-but-often-hilarious-reactions of Eve to her various frustrations and hungers (obviously she—like Kat—didn’t know what this family was dealing with regarding neighbor Phil [Isn’t that also the name of a constantly-put-upon-character from the “Pearls Before Swine” comic strip?  No, wait, I think that’s neighbor Bob.  But maybe Stephan Pastis could create a new neighbor to keep Bob company so he can avoid some of the idiocy that Rat and Pig impose upon him.]; thus, the scene where she’s showing Phil how to tenderize meat [I’d swear this was written by David Lynch] is a great example of a red herring clue that gives Kat [and us] reason to think that Phil's-family-affair-connection was with Mom instead of Dad, plus it’s just funny as hell when Kat discovers them in the kitchen with Eve standing behind Phil sharing the mallet as they both seem to be taking out the anger about their unresolved needs on that poor chunk of beef), and the mix of family drama with the murder-mystery-questions (Did it happen?  If so, who did it?  Why?) that continue to throw us off-track right up until the end (when Kat finds nothing but old frozen food in the freezer, we’re really left hanging for a bit until it’s all resolved).  The critical world hasn’t been all that kind to White Bird … as yet (Rotten Tomatoes 54%, Metacritic 50 %, but those are based on early returns prior to wider-release [it’s been in only 4 theaters so far], suggesting that a later-check-back with the links listed far below would give a fairer result); however, I like the total, somewhat-wacky tone of the whole thing and highly recommend it to you, although it may be a bit hard to find.

 St. Vincent is a little more of a difficult case for me, because while I enjoy the comic aspects of much of it, the overall arc is very predictable. Further, using Melissa McCarthy in a low-key role may be useful for her as far as further honing her craft but given the broad-comedy expectations that currently define her it’s a bit disconcerting to see her here as just a pulverized-by-life-overworked-almost-divorced-mother when there are so many other females who could play such a role rather than setting us up for some type of over-the-edge-explosion that never comes (she does yank Oliver away from Vince’s “care” when the custody hearing goes bad thanks to his shenanigans that neither she nor her lawyer knew about until her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s private eye blindsided her with photos of her son’s after-school-activities, but that was a relatively minor eruption compared to what we know Mt. McCarthy is capable of; if she wants to stretch that much beyond her very-successful-currently-constructed-image then I’d prefer that she try a fully serious role in a straight drama, not just be used as a marketing tool for this comedy-laced-with-sentiment-fest).  Even more so, the wife-with-dementia-bit does help partially explain why Vince’s treating life as something that needs to be ridiculed or ignored through a drunken haze so that he doesn’t get suicidal (yet), but I can’t help but be reminded of the soggy-sentiments regarding the "lost" wife in The Notebook (Nick Cassavetes, 2004), which is not the kind of association that “sparks” (as in original novel author, Nicholas S.) the best mood for a Bill Murray grouchy-old-man-comedy (although at least St. Vincent doesn’t devolve into mush in its husband-and-wife-encounters as does my reference point movie here).  So, while I enjoyed St. Vincent—and join many others in lauding the feature-debut of little Mr. Lieberher, with hopes that he can continue to find roles showcasing his talents—there’s just a bit too much beyond Murray at his acerbic best that felt formulaic, including the easily-wrapped-up-ending (even though we know that all of our main characters still face some hard times).

 What truly ends St. Vincent, though, is a great final credits sequence in which the graphics roll along over an extended shot of Murray doing an intentionally-pathetic-sing-a-long to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” (from the 1975 Blood on the Tracks album).  Here’s a version of that at http://www. with just the Murray footage, no credits, as well as no cutaway to a companion shot used in the movie where we see Vincent from overhead lying on a patio lounger, watering the dirt that constitutes his back yard (connected to an earlier scene where he has Oliver “mowing” the absent vegetation) as a few plants begin to spring up, paralleling the new growth occurring with him, his neighbors, and Daka's new child.  Given that St. Vincent provided me with its own properly-chosen Musical Metaphor (in that all of the main characters who gather for a final celebration of the “sainthood” bestowed on Vincent by Oliver and his school are seeking shelter of some sort from life’s ongoing challenges), I’ll offer one of my own for White Bird in a Blizzard with a fairly obvious choice, from psychedelic-era-band It’s a Beautiful Day, “White Bird” (from their 1969 It's a Beautiful Day album) at com/watch?v=1Cin0QzuEss—illustrated with various photos of the musicians, birds, and nature shots, although the images do get repetitious—which sings of the need for a caged spirit to take wing, just as Kat needed to do to escape the confinement she’d known from the mess her family had made of her adolescent life.  Happy listening to those tunes, to lift your spirits before you take on my final topic for the week, the grotesque world of human combat when nations clash.
Short (well, sort of) Takes
Gone with the Wind
“War! War! War!” (said Scarlett)  Given the overall strong press (we find ratings from Rotten Tomatoes 79%Metacritic 64%—and even stronger in the generally-antiwar-environs of my San Francisco area), especially for the performance of Shia LaBeouf, I’ve been trying to get around to Fury (David Ayer) ever since it opened but the combination of a sick cat (she’s getting better … again … sometimes [however, in human years she’s about 78 so I’m trying to accept the good and bad days—sometimes weeks—while our bed sheets, blankets, and throw rugs have gotten very clean lately from constant washing), household repairs, etc. pushed that effort back long enough from its opening weekend that I’m just going to make minimal (for me) comments on it now, along with a documentary out even longer (which got pushed even further back in the I’d-like-to-see-that-queue), Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy), that explores other combat-related-horrors besides what happened on the actual bloody battlefield back in 1975.  While Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) may have ignored the calls to arms in her day for the Civil War with a dismissive “Fiddle-dee-dee!” she wasn’t concerned with slavery, states rights, a sense of honor, or anything else that might have been calling her “confederates” to enlist but rather was just upset that her beloved Ashley was leaving to fight, thereby hastening his marriage to his cousin Melanie, thwarting Scarlett’s ambitions for a life-on-the-plantation-bubble with the too-noble-man-of-her-
dreams.  Unlike Scarlett, though, even I (anti-war-in-spirit, although not so adamant where Nazis and ISIS are concerned) can’t fault the need for the heroic sacrifices made by the millions who died in WW II to destroy the Axis empires in Europe and Asia, even if those Allied fighters might not have felt all that heroic after participating in the carnage that they had to be responsible for, a sobering sentiment that concludes Fury as novice-Sherman-tank-squad-member (somehow sent into combat with nothing but typist-training) Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman)—second from left, back row in the photo abovethe only survivor of his unit (which, by the end of our on-screen-action, was reduced first to just the others in his tank [nicknamed “Fury,” hence the movie’s title] and then not even them: Boyd “Bible” Swan [LaBeouf], operations leader Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier [Brad Pitt], Trini “Gordo” Garcia [Michael Peña], and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis [Jon Bernthal]—Norman earns his nickname, too, of “Machine,” once he gets over his initial-homicidal-hesitations and starts unloading on any Germans that stand in the way of their advance from Belgium into the Teutonic homeland in the waning days of the war in April 1945, 30 years prior to the cruelties depicted at the end of combat in Vietnam as recounted in the documentary to be explored below), is told by soldiers who find him that he’s “a hero” for helping stand his assigned ground, killing scores of an elite Nazi battalion despite being surrounded and dreadfully outnumbered, before becoming the last survivor of his group (helped, as such, by a young, sympathetic member of the enemy, who seems to see no reason for yet another dead body in the mud, despite the heavy losses to his own troops—possibly we’re supposed to think that even some Nazis have a conscience, especially when they can see their ultimate defeat is inevitable).

 So, what do we have in this respectable attempt to remind contemporary audiences that there was a time (the guys in the tank keep repeating their mantra, “Best job I ever had!”) when global-good triumphed over grotesque-evil (at least until the next round of hostilities started with former Allies U.S. and U.S.S.R. engaged in our bitter Cold War while hostilities remained hot in Korea and Vietnam)?  The battle scenes are all well-staged (appropriate uses of smoke, low-key-lighting, active cutting among the bedlam of the battlefield), the true ironies of war are present (including “Bible” trying to save souls when he’s not manning a wicked machine-gun), the “heroes” aren’t all just about decency and hallowed causes (especially “Coon-Ass” who’s ready to rape a young woman, Emma [Alicia von Rittberg], the squad finds in a town they’ve helped liberate, until “Wardaddy” calls him off [after having just sanctioned a more tender tryst between her and Norman because of their youthful decency—capped off with another irony of never-ending-retaliation in war when German planes bomb the town, killing Emma and her older cousin, Irma [Anamaria Marinca], who showed a brief war-weary-bond with “Wardaddy” during a well-written-yet-lengthy-tension-and-emotion-filled-scene in the women's apartment), and it’s clear that the veterans of this squad—who’ve been together for a few years, beginning with the battles in North Africa—are committed to brutally terminating those who oppose them but it’s not so much ideology that propels them (although it seems to be in play regarding “Wardaddy”’s fanatical hatred—for some unexplained reason, not fully shared by his men, although the horrible scars on his back may have something to do with it—where actual Nazis, rather than front-line-German-grunts, are concerned) as it is self-preservation and a bit of madness after having been immersed in such maniacal conditions for so long (as summed up early in the movie by “Bible” to Norman, “Wait until you see what a man can do to another man”).  If this were an actual review of Fury I’d probably go with 3 ½ stars of 5 because its grit is sincere as is its respect for those who give their lives for the sake of a cause that still feels right even after all these years (as opposed to the constant questions of what was gained in return for all of the American and other losses in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where none of the missions seem “accomplished” after our troops exit), but ultimately it’s just another well-intended-verification that “war is hell,” a lesson that seems to never have been learned enough (although explored at a much-higher-level of accomplishment in modern Steven Spielberg classics Schindler’s List [1993] and Saving Private Ryan [1998]) by any society since the beginnings of human civilization.  If you’d like to get further into Fury, though, you might

Apocalypse Now
want to consult the official website and the trailer.  While you’re prowling around in Internet links you might also want to visit the website for Last Days in Vietnam and its trailer because while I find this actual history lesson to ultimately be a better investment than yet another fictional attempt to help Americans feel better about the many ultimate investments we’ve made to help preserve stability, some level of freedom, and occasional patches of peace in our constantly-violent-world I doubt that you’ll have much more time to find it on a big screen after a 2-month-run that’s left it in only 18 theatres nationwide as of last weekend, with a domestic gross that’s yet to hit the $400,000 mark (which just shows again how poorly real history usually stacks up against fictionalized versions of it, especially with name-brand-actors anchoring that fiction, given that Fury’s now made almost $46.5 million after only 2 weeks in release).  Possibly there just aren’t that many viewers who want to be reminded of “the horror, the horror” (so if you prefer your info on the Vietnam War to come from a fictional film, I highly recommend Apocalypse Now [Francis Ford Coppola, 1979] in either its original or expanded Redux [2001] versions) of the thousands of American lives lost (and tremendously more by all of the various contingents of Vietnamese) in a futile exercise that just saw the long-delayed-result come to pass when North Vietnam finally overran the South part of that country in April 1975 after the removal of our troops as a result of the
1973 Paris "Peace" Accords.  Last Days … simply recounts how inevitable that collapse of the South was (ironically, at least according to the testimony of an interviewee in a position to be well-informed on this situation, because the North feared that President Nixon was hostile enough to restart the massive bombing of Hanoi’s territory [despite his “peace with honor” comments about the Accords], but after his Watergate-related-resignation from office in 1974 they no longer feared the return of the U.S. military—an accurate prediction, as Kennedy's documentary shows because our Congress repeatedly refused to fund further involvement [despite the Accords’ statements that we’d do so and requests for aid from President Gerald Ford; such Congressional action wasn’t much of a surprise, though, as the Senate never ratified that treaty] because of understandable-home-front-fatigue with that devastating quagmire), how optimistically naïve our Ambassador, Graham Martin (who had lost his stepson in the war), was in believing that somehow at least some area around Saigon would be preserved from takeover by the North (we also see footage of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger [who, ironically, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Accords] stating the same sort of optimism, that both versions of Vietnam could co-exist [which may seem crazy now but they were likely basing their hopes on the tension-filled-but-still-relatively-functional model of the 2 Koreas, in place since 1953]), and how desperate the situation became for many thousands of South Vietnamese who had cooperated with the Americans, setting themselves up for swift death when the protectors were gone (at least Ambassador Martin had the courage and dignity to insist that he be on virtually the last helicopter out of the Embassy so that as many South Vietnamese as possible could be airlifted out before him, just as other members of the American mission there worked clandestinely to evacuate Vietnamese they had worked with in order to save their lives from a bloodbath).  Last Days 
in Vietnam is a sobering exploration—with heartbreaking testimony from those who escaped about the terrible sight of seeing hundreds of other would-be-refugees left in the Embassy courtyard, waiting for other helicopters that would never come, echoing the key question of this film: “Who goes and who gets left behind?”—into a foreign policy gone wrong (with blame to be shared, in my opinion, by Democrats and Republicans alike, primarily Lyndon Johnson and Nixon, just as our Mideast policy under both major parties in the 21st century has yet to fully justify itself, no matter who’s functioning as Commander-in-Chief—you’re welcome to chastise me to the hilt for these statements if you like, but even as a lifelong-Democrat and marched-in-the-streets-antiwar-protester I can find little reason to support much of what we’ve done in combat since WW II, no matter who was leading the charge from Washington, D.C.), a lesson to be learned (if anyone bothers to listen), expertly done by a daughter of Robert Kennedy, with the best critical response of anything I’m calling to your attention this week (96% from Rotten Tomatoes, 87% from Metacritic; if this were an actual review I’d give it 4 of 5 stars).  But as to what both of these war-themed-films have to offer us in human experience—while I’ll admit that sometimes such violent action is necessary to protect the decent and the innocent from the mad designs of the egomaniacs—I’ll just leave you with the most obvious Musical Metaphor I can think of for this destructive aspect of our existence, Edwin Starr’s denunciation of such activities in “War” (from the 1970 album War & Peace) at, illustrated with footage from that tumultuous time (if you need visual aids to further the message of the lyrics).
 If you’d like to know more about White Bird in a Blizzard here are some suggested links: (6:49 interview with actor Shailene Woodley from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival)

 If you’d like to know more about St. Vincent here are some suggested links: (7:38, several short interviews with actor Bill Murray about St. Vincent done in the car that Vincent drives in the movie)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Ken,
    Your "short takes" are longer and usually better than most other reviews out there. The injection of your personal story certainly adds interest.

    I caught "Fury" as well; and while not Spielberg it was worth the time. I think there are at least two universal truths around this theme: 1) If Brad Pitt is in a movie it will succeed; women love him, men wish they were him and he is a good actor getting better with age 2) Political leaders on any side of a war will usually sacrifice their young to win, regardless of their initial noble intent. Certainly the anti-war movement of the sixties had dramatic effect to our involvements at the time; no similar opposition has occurred in the Gulf Wars although Obama certainty wanted out; the regrouped opposition knew how to draw him back.

    For an interesting WWII contrast, I would recommend The Young Lions with Marlon Brando in his prime playing a German officer with a conscience and a French girlfriend. Brando may have been the Brad Pitt of his day; however Brando's best work was in his youth; Pitt seems to be improving as he gains more influence in Hollywood.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for the compliment but someday I hope to do a Short Takes comment that's actually short (get the flying pigs warmed up and we'll see what happens). I really like your observations about Fury, which I completely agree with, concerning both the popularity of Pitt and the difficulty of the U.S. getting out of the global policeman role, which I sense our nation is very divided about relinquishing, despite the consistent fed-up response by many of our countrymen as to what we're accomplishing with the number of military graves we've had to dig in the last half-decade.

    I've never seen The Young Lions but have read about it and agree with your recommendation. Brando managed to bring himself back up to his potential a few times in the 1970s, but we're in agreement again that his younger years were when his screen presence was constantly at the level of being overwhelming. As always, I look forward to your input; given Pat's consistent—although unintended, even now—silence over the Two Guys' short run I really appreciate having another partner making significant contributions, so please feel free to keep them up at any time, at any length, with any content, in agreement with me or not. Ken