11th Hour – one good story, one not so good

11th Hour by James Patterson

pic1

 

See it at Amazon 

(3/5)

Pros: one of the stories was good

Cons: the other, not so much

11th Hour is a decent addition to the numerical series by James Patterson and, in this case, Maxine Paetro. Decent, but not great.

As usual, we have The Women’s Murder Club, four women who work together to solve crimes in the San Francisco area. Leading the group is Lindsay, the detective. In this book, she’s married to Joe, and expecting their first child. Then there’s Cindy the reporter, Claire the medical examiner, and Yuki, the district attorney. As in many of the books, Lindsay gets most of the action. Cindy, this time, gets some decent play, and even gets to solve a key piece of the puzzle. But the others are basically on the back-burner.

In 11th Hour, there are two different investigations. The more interesting one focuses on “Revenge”. That’s the name the media has given to a serial killer who targets drug dealers. Despite the fact that some people would rather look the other way and let him continue cleaning the streets, Lindsay’s on the trail, and it leads directly back to her police station. Is a cop going rogue to take out the worst scum of the earth?

The second case involves some heads that are uncovered in the gardens of a famous actor. Just the heads. No bodies. With very little to go on, Lindsay must find a way to identify the bodies, in order to figure out how they got there.

I was intrigued by the “Revenge” case. The killer, in this case, is clever, determined, and clearly motivated by something very personal. At first we have no idea who he is. But, later, we get some chapters written from his point of view, and those were very interesting, and certainly held my interest.

The “heads” case just didn’t do it for me. Sure, I wanted to know who the victims were, and find out the real story. But when we finally get a witness who knows something, the story devolves into nonsense. Why? Because we get the most unlikeable witness I’ve ever read. Frankly, if ever anyone deserved to be tossed in jail for obstruction, this is it.

As far as the ladies’ personal lives go, the biggest focus in this book is on Lindsay and Joe’s marriage. It hits a bit of a hiccup, which was definitely interesting.

In general, I enjoy this series. It’s fun to read about the four women’s lives, and follow them as they work these cases. I just wish the focus could be spread a bit more evenly. And that the cases were always fascinating and thrilling. 11th Hour fails a bit, in both regards.

1st To Die
2nd Chance
3rd Degree
4th Of July
The 5th Horseman
The 6th Target
7th Heaven
The 8th Confession
The 9th Judgment
10th Anniversary
12th of Never
Unlucky 13
14th Deadly Sin

Best Mouse Pad I’ve Used – Fun Designs Too

NatureSmart Allsop Mouse Pad – Raindrop

Raindrop Mouse Pad, Blue

See it at Amazon 

[Rating: 5/5]

Pros: excellent mouse movement, ultra-thin mouse pad, soft cloth surface, non-skid backing

Cons: some people might want more cushioning in their mouse pad

 

A coworker walking by my desk proclaimed my mouse pad needed replacing.  I noticed it was looking worn.  Since my desk is in a visible area, I decided I needed a mouse pad update.  That is how I came to discover and use the NatureSmart Allsop Mouse Pad in the raindrop design.  It was a tough decision deciding, too, since so many mouse pad designs are available.

Description

This NatureSmart Allsop mouse pad is very thin with a non-skid underside and a soft cloth surface.  The manufacturer states that its glue-fee assembly does not use or create harmful chemicals.  Plus, the non-skid base is constructed from 60-percent recycled materials.  The mouse pad is also made from all natural rubber.  Mouse pad dimension for 8” x 8.75”.

My Experiences

This is the best mouse pad I’ve used.  I love that the pad is ultra-thin.  The way the surface of my desk aligns with the computer chair, the thinness of the mouse pad does not lift my wrist from the desk.  No more uncomfortable angles from a foam mouse pad that sits too high.

There is no cushioning in this mouse pad.  The cloth surface is smooth and very soft, but it does not provide a cushioned wrist wrest if this is something you need.  The pad is very thin and flat.

The black non-skid backing grips the wooden desk surface very well.  To shift the mouse pad, I need to lift a corner of the mouse pad before I can move it.  I like that the pad doesn’t shift beneath my hand as I’m using the mouse.

I’m using a Logitech cordless mouse, and it easily glides along the pad surface.  There is no hesitation or “jumping” in cursor movement.

The raindrop design is well done.  It almost comes across as a 3D image.  The blue color is vivid, and the design of raindrops against the blue surface is eye-appealing.  If raindrops are not your thing, NatureSmart has a lot of designs to select from.  They also offer the mouse pads in a few different sizes.  This 8” x 8.75” size works great in my space.

This mouse pad is more environmentally friendly than some other options.  It is constructed from all natural rubber.  The product packaging is made with a minimum of 50-percent recycled material.  Even the non-skid backing on the mouse pad is made from 60-percent recycled material.  In addition, mouse pad  construction does not use glue or create harmful chemicals.

Summary

This NatureSmart Allsop Mouse Pad was inexpensive and a great buy.  I’m really pleased with the quality of the mouse pad and how well it works with my mouse.  I find that this flatter mouse pad is more comfortable than my last one, too.

I hope you found this review useful.

Enjoy your day,
Dawn
http://dlstewart.com

Copyright 2015 Dawn L. Stewart

Other NatureSmart Allsop Mouse Pad Designs
Click to view on Amazon

                                                   

Never Die Alone by Lisa Jackson – Never assume it’s over…

Never Die Alone by Lisa Jackson

 

pic5

See it at Amazon 

(4.5/5)

Pros: decent thriller that held my interest throughout

Cons: very gruesome violence

Twins have had a lot to be frightened of in Lisa Jackson’s Never Die Alone. Why? Because over years, a madman was on the hunt. And his targets? Sets of twins. All killed horribly on their 21st birthday.

The good news is, he’s been caught. The police have “The 21 Killer” in custody. Or do they? Because now another set of twins has gone missing.

Brianna Hayward is on the case. Cousin to the man who’s been currently serving his sentence, Brianna wants to prove him innocent. Not only for her cousin’s sake, but to help find the real killer. And, hopefully, to save Zoe and Chloe’s lives – before the clock strikes midnight, the twins turn 21, and “The 21 Killer” adds another two notches.

Helping Brianna is Jase, a reporter with a huge secret of his own. And Detective Rick Bentz, who shows up in several Jackson novels. Besides this case, Bentz is busy tracking down another serial killer, too.

Overall, Never Die Alone is a decent thriller. There’s non-stop action, and a lot of twists to keep us guessing. And while we are privy to the killer’s thoughts and actions, we don’t really know who he is for quite some time. Thus there’s a mystery for us to solve, as well.

Characters are likeable and for once Ms. Jackson doesn’t force a horrid romance angle down our throats. In fact, my only real complain about this book is the sheer level of horrible violence. It’s hard to read some of the more gruesome details. Of course, this is a thriller, so we go into it expecting violence and shocking crime. It’s just that Never Die Alone goes a bit over the top here and there.

Still, a decent thriller with a lot of intrigue and a fascinating back-story. Well-worth the time.

Also by Lisa Jackson:

Almost Dead
Malice
The Night Before
Wicked Game
Wicked Ways

An Imperfect but Captivating Look at the Final Days of WWII: JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY

JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY

Japan’s Longest Day on Amazon

(4/5)

Pros:  Fascinating from a historical perspective; strong acting and directorial style

Cons: Introduces literally hundreds of characters, making it difficult to follow the unfolding storyline

Released to mark the 35th anniversary of the famed Toho Studios, 1967’s Japan’s Longest Day (a.k.a. Nihon no ichiban nagai hi) details the events from late July 1945 until the official Japanese surrender on August 15 of that year. The story begins just before the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb, as Japanese bureaucrats argue about whether they should agree to the demands of the Pottsdam Declaration, which laid out conditions for an unconditional surrender. The deployment of “the bomb” has little effect on the tone of these arguments, but while the politicians continue to bicker over wording in the Declaration which suggests Japan would be “subject to” the command of the Allies, Nagasaki is destroyed, prompting Japanese Emperor Hirohito to step in and declare that he wants to end the war as quickly as possible. Many Japanese find unconditional surrender to be an unacceptable, dishonorable way to exit the war – the Declaration establishes Japan as a “subordinate” nation, and most of the country’s military leaders prefer to fight to the last man – a situation which would likely lead to an incredibly costly American and Soviet invasion of the home islands. Disagreeing with the Emperor however is simply not an option, so even the most reluctant of the military leaders finally accepts the Allies’s terms.

05410608528C66666A0A4C4C42ACABD3

All of the above action, presented in an almost documentary-like manner replete with actual wartime footage and a narrator who explains and provides context to the events, takes place in the first twenty or so minutes of this 167-minute film – the opening titles only show up around the twenty-one minute mark. This might seem strange since it would appear that the main conflict in the story has been resolved with Hirohito’s explanation that he wants his military leadership to agree to surrender. In truth, writer Shinobu Hashimoto’s script (from a story by Soichi Oya) is just getting started, since it’s at this point that Japan’s Longest Day truly gets into its groove, presenting an incredibly detailed, chronological timeline of the events of August 14th and 15th, 1945. As Hirohito records a speech to be broadcast over the radio, telling his nation that he has agreed to surrender, a group of lower-ranking military men and a rogue civilian military battalion choose to march in anger against the Prime Minister and the Emperor himself. It’s the LP recording of the surrender address itself that the rebelling military men are most interested in capturing since they can effectively prolong the war by ensuring that the speech isn’t broadcast.

220px-Hirohito_in_dress_uniformInterestingly, though Emperor Hirohito (pictured here) figures prominently in the film, the audience never sees his face and he exists as an almost mystical figure.

Given the lengthy running time, it might not be surprising that Japan’s Longest Day is very talky – particularly during its first half. There’s precious little of what most viewers would consider action during this opening section, which presents a very dramatic portrait of a proud nation in severe pain as it comes to terms with its first major military defeat. Though the prolonged dialogue scenes only reinforce my belief that the film would have a limited audience, with those interested in Japanese history or World War II perhaps having the most to gain by watching it, these moments are nonetheless fascinating to watch from an American perspective. Until very recently, there’s been almost no effort made to present the “other side” of the World War II story: the war is often (still) viewed as an “US versus them” affair, with the Japanese clearly being the “bad guys.” Japan’s Longest Day obviously shows a much different side of the war, but also is rather eye-opening since it shows happens when an ultra-nationalistic country is put in its place so to speak after an extended, far-reaching conflict. One can only imagine what would happen in the United States should it face a similar situation.

japans-longest-dayThough it’s long and slow-going at first, the film gets plenty tense down the stretch.

Around the halfway point, just as a narrator explains that only half of Japan’s longest day had elapsed, the film makes a sudden turn into more action-oriented territory. Following a moment pulled straight out of ultra-violent samurai cinema, momentum in the film slowly starts to build and dramatic tension gradually increases, reaching a literal fever pitch by the conclusion. Honestly, I was a bit surprised by this abrupt shift in mood: while captivating in its own way, Japan’s Longest Day seemed all-too willing to simply continue on with its dialogue-heavy presentation. The violent action that eventually turns up is made all the more thrilling simply due to the fact that a viewer who stuck with it had probably grown accustomed to the film’s (up to that point) languishing pace.

002be1c1_mediumOutstanding shot composition is one of the best things about the movie.

Director Kihachi Okamoto (who was primarily known before this film for samurai pictures such as Samurai Assassin, Sword of Doom, and Kill!) does a masterful job of juggling concurrent events . Often, footage showing the most mundane of tasks (discussions about the exact wording of the surrender address that the Emperor will deliver, for instance ) are juxtaposed against scenes of violent struggle taking place in other locations at the same time. The editing work here is really slick, obviously designed for maximum impact, and I especially appreciated the varied choice of camera angles and perspectives as well as the framing in those shots. Directing cinematographer Hiroshi Murai, Okamoto is able to create numerous striking moments: all the hyper-violent scenes are quite shocking in the way they’re related to the camera, but the way Okamoto is able to express the feelings of his characters without dialogue is equally impressive. The film frequently alternates between tight close-ups showing the pained expressions on the actors’s faces and long shots which establish the ways in which their characters are drifting apart ideologically, and I especially liked a scene in which the grief-stricken Emperor is shown clutching a handkerchief in his hand in the foreground while the bitter Minister of War sits stoically in the background.

hJmUr4Jkb8v8Fq5rsUWpStJ3vYdA statue-like Toshiro Mifune as the Japanese War Minister.

Consistent with American-made war epics like The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge, or Tora! Tora! Tora! to name but a few, Japan’s Longest Day is an all-star film if there ever was one. Virtually every actor I’ve ever seen in a Toho sci-fi flick (of which the Godzilla films are the most well known) shows up here, and it was a treat for me to see what they could do with quality material.  That being said, it’s Toshiro Mifune, never a player in a Toho monster mash, who appears as the obvious main character, playing Minister of War, General Korechika Anami. Mifune says more with just his eyes than many actors could in pages of dialogue, but later in the film, he also handles a moving speech about how the young people in Japan have to carry on after the war, working to improve the nation. His final scene in the picture is absolutely stunning, complimented by one of Okamoto’s best directorial flourishes. In a smaller role, Takashi Shimura is his usual, stately self playing Information Bureau Director Hiroshi Shimomura, but it’s Toshio Kurosawa who arguably turns in the most genuinely memorable performance, playing a major who decides to take matters into his own hands in an effort to prolong the war and achieve a “glorious” final battle. Generally, I found the acting in this film to be very strong and full of an appropriate level of both anguish and fervor.

japan-s-longest-day-1967-re-10Many regulars from Toho’s sci-fi flicks turn up here, and do a surprisingly good job tackling more dramatic and serious material.

Finishing up with a batch of hard-hitting and absolutely astounding stats (some 3,000,000 wartime casualties) and a cautionary statement about how Japan must never experience another 24 hours like the one depicted in the film, Japan’s Longest Day wound up being quite a different film than I would have expected. In all honesty, many American viewers would have no interest in watching this black-and-white, subtitled foreign film in the first place, but the fact that so many characters (identified through use of onscreen text) are thrown at the viewer makes it very difficult to keep track of the ongoing action. At a certain point, I fully expected this to be a sort of endurance test to watch, with strong acting but little action; imagine my surprise then when director Okamoto made sure it went off with a bang during its back half. Confusing though the narrative may be, the observant non-Japanese viewer gets enough of the gist of what’s happening to follow the unfolding events, and in terms of its historical value, I’d have to call this picture important. It definitely provides insight into a time and place that’s not-often (if ever) discussed in America, and I would certainly recommend this challenging but entirely worthwhile film to patient viewers willing to stick with it.

tumblr_mjigd0zLDe1rloqyko1_1280

 

blood & guts
5/10 : Just when you think this movie’s going to be all talk, it lets loose with some blood-spurting violence.

smack talk
0/10 : No profanity, lots of hard-hitting dialogue.

fap factor
0/10 : Nada.
whack attack
3/10 : Will undoubtedly impress history buffs, but many will be turned off by an incredibly talky first half and a story that’s difficult to get a handle on.
GI JOE
“You’re still thinking in terms of success or failure…will it preserve our nation or destroy it?”

Dead, Without A Stone To Tell It – Decent start to the series

Dead, Without A Stone To Tell It

pic1

 

 

See it at Amazon 

(3/5)

Pros: decent thriller with characters I’d like to follow

Cons: a few dumb moves and a weak ending

I love picking up a book at random, enjoying it, then discovering that it’s the debut novel of a series! That’s what happened with Dead Without A Stone To Tell It, by Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan.

This is the book where we meet Policewoman Leigh Abbott. A cop with a chip on her shoulder and a lot to prove. When her latest case revolves around a recently unearthed single human bone, she needs help. She approaches forensic anthropologist Matt Lowell. Together, along with Matt’s team of students, the duo follow the clues as they lead to a horrendous pattern of torture and murder. Until, at last, the hunters become the hunted.

I enjoyed this book, in particular, getting to know these characters. I’m glad to hear they continue working together in future books and I’ll definitely check those out. But as for this book, the case was interesting, and I definitely wanted to know how it would all work out. In particular, it was fascinating watching the combination of forensics, anthropology, and good old-fashioned detective work. Think Bones.

However, Dead Without A Stone To Tell It is not perfect. There were two instances of stupidity that I found difficult to swallow. Both involve Leigh, a policewoman who should know better than to do the things she does. Like not reporting an attack against her home for no reason that made any kind of logical sense. Of course, by not reporting it, consequences ensued. Like we didn’t know that would happen! Then there was the time she brought herself, and a civilian into a terribly dangerous situation, without waiting for any kind of backup. Another one of those times where I rolled by eyes knowing how that was going to work out!

Finally, the ending is a little bit weak. Not quite as bad as “the bad guy suddenly decides to confess all” but it’s close. I.e., the authors appear to have tired of telling the story and decided just to cut to the chase.

Still, this is a fine thriller, and a decent debut. I look forward to seeing what else Abbott and Lowell can do, in subsequent novels.

 

The dolt, the bitch and the Soprano.

The Mexican

image-placeholder

$5.97 at Amazon 

(2/5)

Pros: James Gandolfini

Cons: Julia Roberts, ending is a letdown

The Mexican is an example of a meal from Chi-Chi’s thinking that it’s real Mexican cuisine. The cooks claim they put quite a bit of work into this meal, yet it is still overcooked in some places and under-cooked in others.

The film begins as Jerry (Brad Pitt) is told that he owes the crime boss that he works for (as a delivery boy) one last job. His assignment: travel south of the border and retrieve an antique pistol (the Mexican of the title) that has a long history behind it and deliver it to the crime boss. As we’ve already established, Jerry is a royal screw-up. In fact, Leslie Nielsen could play him quite well if he were 30 years younger.

The news of Jerry’s assignment does not go over well with his girlfriend Samantha (Julia Roberts). She literally throws a tantrum when she hears the news and promptly splits, headed for Vegas while he heads South of the border. Of course, neither of their plans goes according to plan.

Jerry finds himself in increasingly tough situations that he can’t get out of. He gets his car stolen, he gets beaten up, he gets shot at etc.

Samantha meanwhile finds herself getting kidnapped at the airport by a hitman named Leroy, played by James Gandolfini. It is here where the movie, which had been kinda ambling along for a while without really going anywhere, starts to pick up steam.

Leroy was assigned to kidnap Samantha as a means of ensuring that Jerry does his job. However it turns into something that is far different from the usual kidnapping. Samantha and Leroy strike up a conversation and take a liking to each other. No romance though, for Leroy is gay. Before long, they are airing out their problems to each other, while Jerry is having a hell of a time down in Mexico.

The Leroy character is easily the best thing about the whole movie. His hitman is a character who is tough yet sympathetic. He shares a lot of the same qualities as Tony Soprano, yet he is not a Tony Soprano clone.

Problem is, whenever Leroy goes off screen, the movie starts to drag. The scenes with Jerry in Mexico have some limited amusement value to them, yet they get old fast. And the conclusion of the film itself is a major letdown.

The biggest problem with the film is the overall relationship between Jerry and Samantha. They spend way too much time bickering, only to come together towards the end. Other films feature bickering couples that get their quarrels resolved through danger and sometimes that element works. Here it doesn’t. The chemistry between Pitt and Roberts comes off as somewhat forced.

Also Samantha is such a shrew! Her opening hissy fit where she throws things off of the balcony and yells stuff at Jerry in a screechy voice made me wonder if Roseanne Barr had wandered in from another movie set (for a movie that I would definitely avoid). I don’t know who should be blamed more for Samantha being so annoying, the screenwriter for writing her that way or Roberts for playing her like that. So I will divide the blame equally between the two of them.

So The Mexican has too many strikes against it for me to recommend it (in good conscience anyway). It is better than a lot of the crap that was released to the multiplexes around the same time (See Spot Run) and the Gandolfini performance is good. So if you do decide to see it, fast-forward to the Leroy scenes. Otherwise you’ll find yourself checking your watch quite often.

PBS’s Comprehensive and Illuminating Examination of THE BOMB

THE BOMB

on PBS

See it at the PBS website 

(5/5)

Pros: Detailed and immensely provocative, with plenty of moments both comical and sobering

Cons: This documentary asks the hard questions and is quite provocative: itt’s not the flag-waving piece some viewers might desire

Timed for broadcast to roughly coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the concluding events of World War II, the two-hour PBS documentary titled simply The Bomb tells the chronological history of nuclear weapons and their effects on world history. Beginning with the theoretical discovery of nuclear fission in pre-WWII Germany, the film’s first half goes on to chronicle the whole of the Manhattan Project that saw the United States develop the first true weapons of mass destruction. During this segment, The Bomb covers nearly identical territory as Discovery Channel’s How We Built the Bomb, yet the PBS show is a tidier production, presenting a more wide-reaching examination of the topic in a fraction of the time. I’d almost say that PBS’s straight-forward documentary is the ideal companion piece to Discovery’s more movie-like program, sinceThe Bomb attaches actual faces to its explanation of the story.

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - 65th Anniversary

From here, The Bomb continues to discuss what happened after this initial display of power, tackling the subjects of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction that, while absolutely preposterous and more than a bit maniacal, probably kept the human race from destroying itself.   The main body of the program more or less ends with the dissolving of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the cessation of US nuclear testing in 1992, but features an epilogue of sorts that cautions about how these weapons will forever remain a threat – particularly as more and more foreign nations develop their own nuclear programs.

Consistent with typically outstanding PBS shows like Nova and American Experience, The Bomb is a straight-forward production consisting of interviews with former military personnel, scientists, and political figures as well as historians and researchers well-versed in the subjects being discussed. The program makes use of an extensive collection of archival footage, a surprising amount of which is in striking color and much of which was restored specifically for inclusion here. A sort of teaser which pops up before the film begins shows a before and after comparison revealing how effective this restoration was, and the story is held together by a well-written narration.

While there are some carefree moments scattered about – such as a sequence when public fascination with all things atomic during the late ‘40s, including the development of the bikini swimsuit, is investigated – the overall tone of the documentary is more frequently serious if not ominous and menacing. It seems like the producers went out of their way to find the most awe-inspiring and inevitably unsettling images of atomic explosions. There is a frankly unbelievable amount of actual film footage of these events (some from tests that I’d never even heard of), and the program starts to border on being downright scary when covering the era of McCarthyism or showing efforts during the ‘50s on the part of America and the Soviets to construct almost inconceivably powerful thermonuclear devices. Also frightening (though darkly humorous in a way) are segments which focus on the ideas of being prepared for potential nuclear strikes – including the infamous Duck and Cover cartoon.

Considering the controversial subject at the heart of the documentary, it might not be surprising that The Bomb could be declared “thought-provoking” for making a viewer really examine and question the situations being discussed, but I think the program’s strongest aspect is its challenging nature. The Bomb purposely avoids notions of patriotism often attached to discussions about atomic weapons, and instead actually forces the viewer to confront cold hard about the actualities of nuclear war. Footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows unfortunate victims of those blasts and their horrific wounds, and while the historians interviewed during the production acknowledge the scientific accomplishment that the development of the bomb was, they are equally as likely to point out the “most extraordinary insanity” on the part of humanity that the nuclear arms race represented. In hindsight, it becomes very difficult to view the arms race as anything but a pissing contest: after all, what “piece of mind” did having some 31,000 nuclear weapons (as the US did at its peak in 1967) really provide – especially when, as they were attempting to convince the public that a nuclear attack was somehow survivable, the government was also striving to create ever-more powerful weapons?

Ultimately, a viewer is left with a deep understanding of how many if not all world events in the latter half of the twentieth century played out under the shadow of the atomic bomb. While many documentaries have covered topics related to nuclear weapons with varying degrees of success (among the better ones are this year’s aforementioned How We Built the Bomb and 1982’s The Atomic Cafe, which compiles educational and government-produced short programs into an alternately amusing and deadly serious collage), I’m not sure that any provide a better, more altogether comprehensive examination of the subject than this program does. As such, The Bomb is almost essential viewing that would be perfect for usage in an educational setting. This is the sort of program that makes PBS stand out among the so-called educational channels, and I’d give it nothing less than my highest recommendation.

 

The documentary can be viewed in its entirety at the PBS website.

Perhaps the last WWII participant memoir: James Lord’s

My Queer War

myqueerwar

$11.13  at Amazon 

(4.2/5)

Pros: macabre experiences

Cons: author died before completing polishing of the manuscript

I thought that the first and last parts of James Lord’s My Queer War were overwritten. Lord (who was born in 1922 and dropped out of Wesleyan University to volunteer for the army (supposedly to the Army Air Corps) waited a long time to write about his experiences in the WWII US Army, but his book, published in 2010, a year after his death, is very timely for showing that US military intelligence engaged in torture back then.

Though Lord had his first homosexual adventures (in Boston and DC) after he had enlisted and been chosen for an ASTP program (in French at Boston College), he was chaste through most of the war, indeed seriously pissing off a superior officer who wanted to have sex with him. Considering his penchant for pissing off superiors in the military hierarchy, starting in basic training in California, he was lucky to survive.

He was puzzled why he and his whole military intelligence group were awarded bronze stars, but it seems to have saved him from more dangerous assignments. (It seems to have been awarded to them for finding and sending up to HQ a set of blueprints of a town that the Germans were fiercely holding.) He was under enemy fire once (a German tank when he was driving a jeep), but mostly was in danger of being charged for insubordination or transferred into a combat unit by those he annoyed who could transfer him.

After the US Army crossed the Rhine, Francophone MI personnel were superfluous. Lord managed to get into more trouble protesting the mistreatment of “displaced persons” in hellhole camps (not being in uniform, the prisoners were not afforded Geneva Convention protection that was available to Nazis in uniform). He wrote Thomas Mann: “There is now no basic difference between what we are fighting for and what we are fighting against, and it is a hard shock to know it.” The queerness of Lord’s wartime experience was not primarily sexual, but peculiar at pretty much every step, both in assignments and in the conduct of those under whose command he was generally restive.

In Paris, while the war machine was slow to figure out what to do with him next, Lord (“a tourist disguised as a soldier”) was able to meet Pablo Picasso, who drew two portraits of him, and through Picasso, Gertrude Stein, with whom he eventually broke acrimoniously.

lord

Giacometti and the far lengthier process of sitting for The Giacometti Portrait came after Lord was demobilized and returned to New Jersey (and to Wesleyan). I haven’t read either of his 1950s novels, but had read three earlier volumes of recollections of relationships with remarkable men and women. He wrote a tome-length biography of Alberto Giacometti, “the one person encountered in my entire lifetime for whom I could feel unequivocal admiration.”

There is a lot of dialogue in the book, even for someone who wrote assiduously in his journals at the long-ago time. And way too many adjectives in the purple-prose opening pages. (I think they thinned out rather than that I got used to them!) Allowances must be made that Lord did not live to make a final edit before the book’s publication (the book includes no information on what editing of the manuscript was done after he died). It does not have the elegant concision of his other memoirs

 

“…now I am become death…the destroyer of worlds:” HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

on Discovery Channel

Discovery Channel

(4/5)

Pros:  Accessible, captivating,  and informative, with a wealth of astounding archival footage

Cons:  Actual interviews not included

Made for the Discovery Channel networks and first broadcast in mid 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Trinity Test, How We Built the Bomb takes the form of a dramatized documentary that tells the story of the American atomic program from start to finish. The program (two hours with commercials) begins with the now-famous letter written by Albert Einstein warning American president Franklin Roosevelt that Nazi Germany may in fact be working on a “superbomb” that would be powered not by conventional explosives, but by splitting the atom. As America enters World War II in the coming years, a priority is placed on unlocking the secrets of nuclear fission and developing a uranium or plutonium based explosive device (referred to by scientists as “the gadget”) before the Germans did. This involved a large and incredibly secretive operation across several states, with the main research and development facility located in a remote section of the New Mexican desert.

scanned: May 2001 by Image Delivery Systems LLCSome of the many personnel involved in the Manhattan Project whose viewpoints are told in the documentary through re-imagined interviews.

Lacking a traditional narration, How We Built the Bomb (written by David Broodell) is told from the perspective of the people who worked on the so-called “Manhattan Project,” but instead of using actual archival interviews, the production is based around an extended series of recreated interviews with actors portraying the various scientists, military and support personnel, and others who found themselves involved in some way with this tremendous undertaking. At first, this approach seems awkward and maybe even reprehensible since the ongoing dialogue is fictionalized to an arguably large extent. As the program wore on however, I grew more and more absorbed in the unfolding story being told and found the format of the documentary to be less detrimental than I would have originally thought.

A billboard at the Oak Ridge FacilityDespite the government’s best efforts, security among project personnel was compromised on several occasions.

Along with these dramatized interviews, the program also presents a rather large amount of home movies and film footage taken by residents of Los Alamos, New Mexico (for all intents and purposes, the center of the R&D division of the Manhattan Project) during this era. When combined with the speakers, this footage goes a long way in not only telling a detailed history of the nuclear program, but also explaining what life was like for the scientists, spouses, military personnel and support staff who found themselves working on an underground project in a top secret location. Much of the program (rightfully) focuses on efforts to come to grips with the physics behind fission and put such theories into practice, but How We Built the Bomb also includes some rather humorous observations about the ways in which project personnel unwound after long hours in the lab. I found myself chuckling at explanations of what went into the highly alcoholic “tech area punch” that scientists consumed during their off hours and was similarly amused by one military man’s frustration at the fact that some eighty babies were born at the facility in 1944, indicating another method of stress relief practiced by the town’s residents.

nextgov-mediumSite of the Trinity Test, viewed after the first detonation in July, 1945.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary starts to ratchet up the tension level down the stretch when scientific theory doesn’t quite match up with actual experimental results and it becomes apparent that a new method of detonation must be sought. By this point in 1944, though the war in Europe is nearing its conclusion, a long, drawn-out and very costly invasion of Japan is imminent unless the bomb can be used to precipitate a quick end to the conflict. Accompanied by almost psychedelic music cues, the segment dealing with the initial Trinity Test, the world’s first detonation of an atomic weapon, is very deliberate in its construction which maximizes the impact of the event on a viewer. I should also state that while the program does chronicle the period up to and including the unconditional surrender of the Japanese following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these events are only briefly touched on; the documentary is clearly more focused on the actual development of the atom bomb, not its deployment.

One of the strongest aspects of the documentary is the way in which it breaks down complicated physics in a way that can be understood by viewers who in all likelihood don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the processes involved. Even if the interview subjects do on occasion go into lengthy and extremely complicated explanations of the mathematics involved in solving the problems of nuclear fission, they subsequently reveal what they were trying to accomplish in “layman’s terms.” An offscreen “interviewer” character (who a viewer is never truly introduced to) acts as the voice of the viewer at times, prompting the speakers to answer questions in a more straight-forward manner. Visuals and graphics that accompany these segments also aid in a viewer’s understanding of the concepts being discussed: I got a kick out of the now almost humorous vintage educational film footage utilized during certain segments, and nifty special effects attempt to visualize what actually happens when fission starts to take place in a nuclear device.

atomic_bomb_end_of_worldIt’s kind of scary that none of the scientists working on the project quite knew what would happen when an atomic detonation occurred – some feared that the blast would actually ignite the atmosphere.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the nuclear program was the fact that the scientists involved in making the atom bomb faced serious moral dilemmas. Truly, at the time it was only these scientists who fully comprehended what effect these weapons would have should they be used against enemy forces – or civilians – and many were vehemently opposed to the military deployment of “the gadget.” How We Built the Bomb deals with this issue about as well as one would expect or hope for in a program of this nature, prompting the viewer to question whether the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were genuinely necessary. It’s worth noting that it was Harry Truman, who assumed the Presidency of the United States after the death of FDR and only found out about the Manhattan Project after he had been sworn in, that actually authorized these attacks. One has to wonder if he was aware of what the consequences of this action would be, and in a modern society that’s gotten all-too-used to the idea of nuclear threat, it’s worth remembering that the United States is still the only nation that has ever used an atomic device against other human beings.

3241909-einstein-after-an-atom-bomb-test

When viewing this program, one is left with a sense of awe – not only with the power of the atomic bomb itself, a power which is hammered home time and again throughout the film, but with the fact that such a seemingly impossible scientific undertaking as to make such a device was accomplished in a short time under rather adverse conditions. No matter what one’s feelings are about nuclear weapons, it’s pretty amazing that scientists were able not only to understand how the fission process worked but also how it can be harnessed and (at least partially) controlled. Edited in a very capable manner with a quietly effective music score provided by Brendan Anderegg, How We Built the Bomb ultimately celebrates the tremendous scientific achievement that the bomb was the end result of. Although to an extent it makes the scientists involved out to be heroic figures, to its credit the program doesn’t necessarily present the bombing of Japan as a moment of triumph or jubilation, ending instead on a somber and even ominous note, with various blurbs from political speeches and news broadcasts reminding the viewer how fundamentally the world was changed with the advent of the bomb. I think that’s about as appropriate an end statement that could be made, and would whole-heartedly recommend this documentary to any interested viewer.

 

HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB – EXCERPT from Seth Skundrick on Vimeo.

Oliver Stone’s Most Personal Film.

Platoon

image-placeholder

$5.75 Blu-Ray at Amazon 

(5/5)

Pros: Intense as hell, fantastic acting.

Cons: Can be tough for some to sit through.

(This review originally appeared in different form on Epinions.com)

Platoon was the very first R-rated movie that I ever saw. I first watched it in 1988 when I was 11 years old. At the time I wasn’t like most kids in that I was less interested in playing with GI Joe toys and more interested in history. One particular aspect of history that caught my attention was the Vietnam War.

So I was watching quite a few war films as a result of this interest and my father asked if I had seen Platoon. I answered no. It was soon to be shown on HBO. He suggested we watch it together. He also cautioned that the violence in it was going to be very brutal and that the soldiers in the film would be using certain words he did not want to hear me using. So we sat side by side on the couch in the apartment we lived in at the time, munched on a bag of Lays potato chips and watched Oliver Stone’s recollection of his tour of duty in 1967-68. When the credits rolled I sat there dazed and pondering a question that had once been raised in a comic strip. The question: How do armies of men killing each other solve anything?

That’s the effect Platoon has on anyone who watches it. It takes a piece out of you. Big time. No matter how many times you see it, it still cuts right to the bone.

Platoon was not the first feature film to tackle the subject of Vietnam. In 1978/1979 we were treated to Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and (one of my top 5 all-time favorite films) Apocalypse Now. Platoon differed from those films in that it set out to be a straight-forward portrayal of ground-level combat in everyone’s not-so-favorite Asian land war. While Coming Home examined the effects of the war on returning vets, Apocalypse Now was an existentialist fever dream/nightmare set against the backdrop of Vietnam and Deer Hunter was your classic parable on man’s inhumanity to man, Platoon drops the audience right into the combat and doesn’t look back.

Stone originally wrote the script for Platoon in 1976. But could not get a studio interested. So he waited ten years and in the interim directed a low-budget horror film, wrote some screenplays (Scarface and Midnight Express most notably) and won a screenwriting Oscar for Midnight Express. Finally a decade later he acquired the independent funding needed to make Platoon. In retrospect it was better that he waited because he was able to secure a fantastic cast for his film.

Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, a young college dropout who enlists in the army in 1967 and is posted (per his request) to Vietnam. Specifically he ends up in part of Vietnam along the Cambodian border. Taylor finds himself in a platoon that’s divided between the dopers who smoke the titular stuff and listen to rock and soul and the juicers who drink beer and listen to country music. The platoon leadership is also divided: between the hard tough Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sgt Elias (Willem Dafoe) who’s a very good soldier yet still has a sense of humanity to him. Barnes has survived numerous wounds and has the facial scars to prove it. He’s survived so many that some of the men in the platoon think he’s invincible.

The divisions in the platoon erupt into full-fledged civil war when the soldiers happen across a village that they suspect may be hiding Viet Cong. When weapons and food are discovered, several of the men are crazed for revenge which almost leads to a Mai Lai style genocide. Elias steps in and stops Barnes and his followers from committing a massacre. But in the process he also elevates the tension in the platoon into full-blown conflict. By the end of the movie Taylor remarks in voice-over “We did not fight the enemy as much as we fought ourselves”.

Berenger and Dafoe were both deservedly nominated for Oscars for their roles as Barnes and Elias. Sheen gives a uniformly good performance as Chris Taylor. Also good in the acting category for Platoon are Kevin Dillon as the psychotic Bunny, John C McGinley as a frightened SSgt, Corey Glover (of Living Colour), Keith David, Johnny Depp (when he was still on 21 Jump Street) and Forrest Whittaker.

When he set out to shoot Platoon, Stone determined to make it look as close to his personal experience in the war as he could. His approach to this was effective. Instead of following the approach of most previous war pictures and shoot the combat scenes from an over-head perspective, he placed the camera right in the middle of the action. This resulted in Platoon being (at least as far as I can tell having never fought in a war myself) the closest Hollywood has came to offering a you are there portrayal of battle, at least until a certain Spielberg directed one nearly 12 years later. You share in the confusion and terror the men feel. Stone also chooses to keep the politics out of the equation and stays away from flashy editing techniques which would enhance (and sometimes mar) some of his later films. Here the focus is exclusively on the story. It’s a good choice and helps Platoon resonate even more with the viewer.

Watching this film today, I find it has not lost any of its edge or resonance. It represented a high-water mark for both Oliver Stone and his cast. If you want to see a war film that delivers a realistic portrayal of how war really is and offers some superb acting and cinematography as well or if you’re looking for what set the stage for films like the recent Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, then Platoon is the film to see.