O.J. Trial Redux Series Very Promising

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LOGO All right, I admit it. Back in 1995 I was a junkie! My addiction lasted for nine months from Jan. 24 until Oct. 3. Every day during that period I would rush home after teaching my classes at West Liberty so that I could get my daily fix. No, I wasn’t smoking weed or snorting cocaine or shooting up with heroin. Instead, I was addicted to the murder trial of Orenthal James Simpson.

The butchered bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson (O.J.’s ex-wife) and her friend Ronald Goldman were found outside her condo on Bundy Drive in Los Angeles at 12:10 a.m. on June 13, 1994. The Hall of Fame football player was subsequently arrested and brought to trial for the murders, and a media circus ensued. For nine months people watched on television as one of the most publicized trials in history unfolded.

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And what they saw was an embarrassingly incompetent judge named Lance Ito presiding over a bizarre trial in which an incredibly inept group of prosecutors led by Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden made a mockery of justice as they squandered a preponderence of evidence against O.J. What they also saw was O.J.’s “dream team” of defense attorneys that included Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, and Barry Scheck brilliantly win an acquittal for their client by playing “the race card” and seriously damaging the credibility of the LAPD.

As you might expect, in the aftermath of the trial prosecutors and defense attorneys alike sought to cash in by writing books about it. And a number of other authors published books on “the trial of the century,” but perhaps the best of the lot is the one titled “The Run Of His Life: The People V. O.J. Simpson,” by Jeffrey Toobin. The book was first published in 1996, and now it is the basis of 10-part TV miniseries airing on FX’s American Crime Story. Alas, my addiction has returned.

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After watching just the first episode of “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” I’ve once again been sucked into one of the most fascinating stories in American crime. Although it does take some liberties with actual events, the show boasts an incredibly talented cast, and even though I’m only one episode into it, there is no doubt that it’s going to be a winner.

The first show in the series begins as O.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr.) emerges from his house carrying some luggage and approaches a waiting limo. He apologizes to the driver for being late, explaining that he had to take a shower and expressing his hope that they will be able to make his flight.

Now we switch to Bundy Drive, where a man is walking his dog and encounters an Akita with blood-soaked paws standing on sidewalk. The dog then leads the man to the bodies of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, and shortly afterward police are summoned to the scene. During the ensuing scenes we meet three police officers who will figure prominently in the case: Det. Phillip Vannatter (Michael McGrady), Det. Tom Lange (Chris Bauer), and Det. Mark Furham (Steven Pasquale).

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As word of the double homicide spreads throughout the Los Angeles area, additional key players in the unfolding drama make their appearance in the show. These include the following: District Attorney Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood); Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), who would be the lead prosecutor in the case; Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), who would serve as Clark’s assistant; Robert Karsashian (David Schwimmer), who is a former attorney and a close friend of O.J.’s; Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), who is a well-known defense attorney and the first lawyer hired by O.J.; Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), who is the flamboyant defense attorney that ultimately becomes the head of the “dream team.”

In trying to contact O.J., the police learn he is in Chicago, and Lange calls him in his hotel to tell him that his ex-wife has been killed. Following a brief conversation, O.J. says he will fly home in the morning. After Lange hangs up, Vanatter notices a strange look on his face, and when he asks him what is the matter, Lange says, “He didn’t ask how she died.”

When O.J. arrives back in town, he’s ultimately arrested and agrees to turn himself in at a certain time, but instead of complying, O.J. flees. After writing what appears to be a suicide note, he gets into his white Bronco with his close friend Al Cowlings (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) behind the wheel and begins what turns into one of the most famous car chases in history. And the first episode ends as the police discover that O.J. has become a fugitive.

Based upon the opening episode, the series looks very promising mainly because of its remarkable cast. It’s amazing how much the actors resemble their real-life counterparts, with the disappointing exception of Gooding, Jr., who looks nothing like O.J.

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                                Simpson                                                           Gooding Jr.

On the other hand, take a look at these pictures, and you will see what I’m talking about.

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Clark                                                         Paulson

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                                 Kardashian                                                             Schwimmer

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                                           Darden                                                                    Brown

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                               Cochran                                                     Vance 

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                                   Shapiro                                                            Travolta

Although the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on both counts of murder, the fact remains that the evidence against Simpson overwhelmingly pointed toward his guilt. In fact a different jury found him guilty in the wrongful death civil suit brought against Simpson by the Goldman family. In an interview that appeared in the Daily Beast, Gooding Jr. spoke about how Simpson’s guilt or innocence relates to the series.

“This show isn’t saying O.J. did it; he didn’t do it. We’re not about the verdict. We heard the verdict. They found him not guilty. But if you watch all these episodes, I truly believe everyone will say, ‘Of course they found him not guilty.’ That’s what the focus is: to show you the absurdity of the life events surrounding that trial.”

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Also in the Daily Beast Paulson expressed her empathy for what Clark went through during the trial. By the time the verdict came in, Clark’s physical appearance definitely showed what a toll the event had taken on her.

“We’re talking about a woman who’s a civil servant, who was thrust on a national stage and was expected to weather all that with grace and aplomb. It’s just not possible to do. She just didn’t have that flashy Johnnie Cochran drama in the courtroom. She was just the mother of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, going through a terrible divorce, who was a prosecutor for the County of Los Angeles, trying to put bad people away. Then all of a sudden she’s being criticized for the length of her skirts, the style of her hair, how tired she was, the color of her lipstick. It was really rough from a female perspective to be judged and ridiculed that way.”

From what I’ve seen so far, I give “The People v. O.J. Simpson” a preliminary verdict of a tenuous eight, which could change dramatically during the coming weeks. The acting in the first episode was consistently strong, but unfortunately I’m having a difficult time buying into Gooding Junior’s portrayal of OJ. Aside from that, However, I am really enjoying revisiting that incredibly fascinating case.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if during the final episode in the series, the jury found O.J. guilty as charged? Now then the show would be a 10!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

role and the events of 20 years ago.

Because of that, “I feel so much empathy for what she went through,” she said. “We’re talking about a woman who’s a civil servant, who was thrust on a national stage and was expected to weather all that with grace and aplomb. It’s just not possible to do.”

“She just didn’t have that flashy Johnnie Cochran drama in the courtroom,” she went on. “She was just the mother of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, going through a terrible divorce, who was a prosecutor for the County of Los Angeles, trying to put bad people away. Then all of a sudden she’s being criticized for the length of her skirts, the style of her hair, how tired she was, the color of her lipstick. It was really rough from a female perspective to be judged and ridiculed that way.”

Both Paulson and Gooding—and everyone involved in the project who have spoken about it thus far—were also insistent on another crucial thing: the surprising relevance that the trial, its ensuing frenzy, and the culture wars and debates that it caused still has today. That, they say, will be a very big part of American Crime Story.

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The 10 File — “Charade”

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LOGO Well, the Oscar nominations are in, and those coveted golden statuettes will be handed out on Feb. 28. Of course this means that we won’t be seeing any earth-shattering films for a while because Hollywood already has released all its heavy artillery for the 88th edition of the Academy Awards.

After perusing the abysmal offerings at the local theaters this week, I decided to dip into my 10 File, where I found an absolutely wonderful film that offers a great combination of mystery, suspense, humor, and romance, and it’s filled with enough plot twists to keep you guessing from beginning to end. Of course Alfred Hitchcock is the undisputed master of suspense films, but even though he did not direct this one, his influence is evident throughout it.

“Charade,” starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, first hit the silver screen in 1963 at Christmas, and despite its age, it remains one of the most entertaining and enjoyable thrillers of all time. As the film begins, we see the body of a dead man tossed from a speeding train, and then we switch to a posh ski resort in France, where Regina “Reggie” Lambert (Hepburn) is vacationing. She has just finished confessing to a friend that she’s going to divorce her husband when she meets a suave guy named Peter Joshua (Grant). But after some brief flirtatious dialogue the two of them part ways.

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Reggie returns to Paris, where a double shock awaits her. First, she learns that her husband has been murdered (He was thrown off the train after he was killed.), and she also finds out that he had auctioned off all the belongings in her apartment before his death. All she is left with is her husband’s travel bag containing a letter addressed to her, some false passports, and a few other insignificant items. And the only people who show up at her husband’s funeral are three guys who exhibit very strange behavior.

After the funeral a CIA administrator named Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) contacts Reggie and has her meet him at the U.S. Embassy. Here he tells her that the three characters from the funeral are Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), and Leopold W. Gideon (Ned Glass). It just so happens these guys were in World War II with Reggie’s husband, and they were supposed to deliver $250,000 in gold to a certain party, but they decided to steal it instead. Through a series of double-crosses Reggie’s husband ended up with the money, and now the other guys think she has it.

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In the meantime Peter shows up again and offers to help keep Reggie safe from the three hoodlums who think she’s hiding the money. What follows is a fascinating treasure hunt to find the missing money in which nothing is as it seems to be and various people aren’t really who they say they are. Just when you think you have things figured out, another unexpected twist pops up. I don’t really know how many times I’ve seen this film, but it’s so much fun that I never get tired of it.

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In addition to a script filled witty dialogue and clever repartee, this film’s stellar cast includes two of the most elegant stars ever to grace the silver screen. Go to the dictionary, look up the word debonair, and Grant’s picture will be there. And you’ll find Hepburn’s portrait beside the words beautiful and classy. The chemistry between the two of them in this film is as good as it gets. From the time their characters first meet, it’s obvious that their relationship is going to be filled with clever give-and-take.

Peter Joshua: Do I know you?

Regina Lampert: I already know an awful lot of people, and until one of them dies, I couldn’t possibly meet anyone else.

Peter Joshua: Well, if anyone goes on the critical list, let me know.

From the outset it’s obvious that both Grant and Hepburn had a great deal of fun playing their respective roles. Their fine work in the film was duly recognized as each of them received Golden Globe nominations.

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In addition to the great performances turned in by its two stars, the movie has a wonderful supporting cast in Matthau, Coburn, Kennedy, and Glass. Their characters will keep you guessing throughout the film, and it’s a lot of fun watching them try to outdo each other.

“Charade” was directed by Stanley Donen, who was known for doing such great musicals as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “The Pajama Game,” and “Damn Yankees!” But in an online interview he explained what drew him to “Charade.”

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“I always wanted to make a movie like one of my favorites, Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest.’ What I admired most was the wonderful story of the mistaken identity of the leading man. They mistook him for somebody who didn’t exist, so he could never prove he wasn’t somebody who wasn’t alive. So I searched to find some piece with a wonderful story and the same idiom of adventure, suspense, and humor.”

Donen’s search ended when he discovered the serialized novel “Charade” in Redbook magazine.

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Master musical composer Henry Mancini wrote the film’s fabulous theme, which earned an Oscar nomination.

If you have never seen “Charade,” look it up on Netflix and treat yourself. When it’s over, I guarantee you’ll say, “They just don’t make them like that anymore.”

 

 

 

 

 

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“Room” Worthy Of Its Four Oscar Nods

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LOGO The 88th Academy Awards will be handed out on Feb. 28, and this year eight films are in contention for the coveted Best Picture Oscar. Three of these movies — “The Revenant,” “Spotlight,” and “Room” — are playing at our local theaters, and this week we’re going to have a look at “Room,” a very different kind of movie that really took me by surprise.

Based upon Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name, “Room” appropriately opens in a small, single room containing only a bed, a toilet, a bathtub, and a tiny kitchen. There are no windows, and the only source of natural light in the room is a small skylight in the ceiling. The inhabitants of this miserable hovel are a 5-year-old boy named Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother, whom he calls simply “Ma” (Brie Larson)

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This room is the only home Jack has ever known, but the same is not true for Ma. As the story evolves, we learn that Ma had been abducted seven years ago by a man she refers to as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Since that time, he has kept her incarcerated in a shed behind his house so that he can rape her whenever the spirit moves him. Jack obviously is the result of one of these depraved sexual encounters.

Ma never tells Jack that Old Nick is his father, and when the pervert pays Ma one of his regular, periodic visits, she has Jack hide in a wardrobe until the man is gone. The two captives try to make the best of their situation by playing games and having conversations with each item in the room. But when Ma finds out that Old Nick may no longer have enough money to provide food for Jack and her, she decides it’s time to devise an escape plan turning the film into a taut thriller.

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Once Ma implements her ingenious plot, you will be on the edge of your seat until you see what happens and how it ultimately changes of lives of Jack and Ma. Although I thought the film left some questions unsatisfactorily answered, it definitely is exceptional because it is so different and because Larson delivers a dynamite performance worthy of her Oscar nomination for best actress. The role of Ma is incredibly demanding both physically and emotionally, and Larson is definitely up to the task. In the film’s production notes, she discussed her character.

“I don’t think Ma ever expected to get out of Room. She knew that hope can be a trickster. But I think she always believed Jack would get out. When she made an escape plan for Jack, it was a selfless act. She had to believe Jack would make it, but I don’t think she ever considered that she might make it out, too, and have another chance at life and being a mother.”

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To say that Larson really threw herself into the role is a gross understatement. She hired a personal trainer to whip her into shape to the point where her body fat dropped to just 12 percent.

“That physical process really put me in a certain mindset,” she said. “I felt more aggressive, more like a fighter, and at the same time I felt hungry and exhausted. It gave me a sense of what Ma must have felt like in her body after years in captivity with just barely enough food.”

But Larson didn’t stop with the physical aspect of Ma. She wanted to know what Ma must have endured emotionally, and to this end she practically shut herself off from society.

“I wanted to fully understand what it was like for Ma to be so, so long in Room. I think she’d have gone through waves — waves of panic, then waves of acceptance, but I think a lot of the time she was probably just bored by the routine and monotony. So to simulate that, I stayed at home for a month and only left to go to the gym. I had very little connection to the outside world, and I stayed out of the sun since Ma has not had sun on her skin in many years.”

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Although there’s no doubt that Larson carries the film, she is backed by a fabulous supporting cast beginning with 10-year-old newcomer Tremblay, who is terrific as Jack. For as young as he is, Tremblay exhibits poise beyond his years in front of the camera, and his performance in this film should do much toward advancing his promising career.

Previous Academy award nominees Joan Allen and William H. Macy also are on hand in this film as Ma’s parents. As you would expect, their respective performances are flawless.

In addition to receiving nominations for best picture and best actress, “Room” also is up for Oscars in the categories of best director and best-adapted screenplay. Thus, the film has much to recommend it, and it’s one of those movies that haunt your brain long after you have seen it because what Ma endures will rip your heart out.6

As I mentioned earlier, however, I thought the film left several important questions unsatisfactorily answered, but I won’t say what they are for fear of revealing too much. Nevertheless, “Room” is an exceptionally good and refreshingly different movie totally deserving of its Oscar nominations.

Spending time in that horrible Room with Ma and Jack is not something you will soon forget, and this excellent movie earns the final score of a rock-solid eight because there just was quite enough room for a 10.

 

 

 

 

 

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“The Revenant” Is Not Worthy Of Hype

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LOGO Well, the Golden Globes are history, and the Academy Award nominations are in. The Globe’s, presented annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, traditionally are considered a barometer for how the Oscar nominations will go. That belief certainly held true this year in at least one case because the big winner at the Globes was “The Revenant” starring Leonardo Di   Caprio and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman”). The film swept the awards for best picture, best director, and best actor.

During the recent announcement of the Academy Award nominations, “The Revenant,” dominated the competition with a whopping 12. This year eight films were nominated for best picture, and I have seen only two of them – “The Bridge of Spies,” and “The Revenant.” I plan to see all of them before the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 28, but I have seen trailers for most of the other contenders. And I am willing to bet that I will enjoy each and all of them more than I did “The Revenant.” Despite a stellar performance by DiCaprio and some truly stunning cinematography, I thought the film was tedious, long, and downright boring in places.

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Based upon Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same name, “The Revenant” tells a fictional version of how legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) took on Mother Nature and won. The story is set in 1823, and Glass is leading a fur-trapping an expedition for Capt. Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) along the Missouri River, but his group is attacked by some Arikara tribesmen. Although Glass survives, he subsequently is severely mauled by a grizzly bear (a scene not for the squeamish) and not expected to live.

Capt. Henry decides to head home, but he orders three men to stay with Glass to bury him when he dies. Those assigned to the funeral detail are the following: John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy); Jim Bridger (Will Poulter); and Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Glass’s son by a Pawnee woman.

After Henry and the remaining hunters leave, Fitzgerald soon becomes impatient waiting for Glass to die and decides to speed up the process. However, when Hawk sees what Fitzgerald intends to do, he attacks him, but Fitzgerald stabs him to death, and then he and Bridger leave Glass to die. The main part of the film then deals with how the mortally wounded Glass attempts to crawl and drag himself over a snow-covered tundra for 200 miles to avenge his son’s death. What ensues is a classic man-against-nature movie that epitomizes the term “tour de force.” And of course the film’s title refers to Glass because a revenant is a person who returns to life after being dead.

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The hardships Glass endures during his amazing trek through the frigid countryside are unimaginable, and DiCaprio turns in an amazing performance when you consider he conveys Glass’s thoughts, emotions, and feelings without speaking a word for much of his journey. (At least in “Castaway” Tom Hanks had a volleyball to talk with.) This role is unlike anything DiCaprio has ever done before, and he proves to be up to the task. In the production notes, both the director and actor offered insight into the film.

Inarritu said, “Glass’s story asks the questions: Who are we when we are completely stripped of everything? What are we made of, and what are we capable of?”

“‘The Revenant’” is an incredible journey through the harshest elements of an uncharted America,” DiCaprio said. “It’s about the power of a man’s spirit. Hugh Glass’s story is the stuff of campfire legends, but Alejandro uses that folklore to explore what it really means to have all the chips stacked against you, what the human spirit can endure, and what happens to you when you do endure.”

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DiCaprio also explained what drew him to making the picture.

“There are powerful themes for me in the film: the will to live and our relationship with wilderness. I’ve also previously played a lot of characters who were incredibly articulate in different ways and had a lot to say, so this was a unique challenge for me. It was about conveying things without words or in a different language. A lot of it was about adapting in the moment, about reacting to what nature was giving us and to what Glass was going through as we filmed. It was about exploring the most internal elements of the survival instinct.”

Although it’s highly doubtful that anyone could have survived what Glass did, it is an interesting legend. Even director Inarritu admitted that “…much of Glass’s story is apocryphal…,” and although it probably is a good story to tell around the campfire, it didn’t really work for me as a movie that’s almost three hours long.

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Despite diCaprio’s excellent acting and some spectacular cinematography, “The Revenant” did nothing for me. For some reason I simply was not drawn into the story, and I soon became very tired of watching Glass crawl across the snow. In fact I began wishing it would end long before the two-hour mark, and when it was finally over, I felt as if I had just passed a huge endurance test. Also be forewarned that the scene of Glass’s being mauled by the bear is incredibly realistic and graphic, and there’s another sequence in the movie that may horrify horse lovers.

In spite of its 12 Oscar nominations and its Golden Globe wins, I still thought “The Revenant” was a real chore to sit through, and, therefore, it earns the final score of a highly overrated six. Glass’s endless journey through the snow just left me cold.

 

 

 

 

 

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Tarantino’s Is New Film True To Form

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LOGO People either love his films, or they hate them. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground when it comes to the movies of Quentin Tarantino, who now has a total of eight films to his credit since “Reservoir Dogs” hit the silver screen back in 1992.

Tarantino’s films are rife with satire, dark comedy, profanity, and graphic violence. In fact the bloodletting in his films is often so excessive that it becomes funny instead of horrifying. If you doubt what I’m saying, watch “Kill Bill.”

“The Hateful Eight,” Tarantino’s most recent film, is set some years after the Civil War and features an incredible ensemble cast including Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen. A cast just doesn’t get any better than this one, and it’s a real treat to watch their characters interact in a story that only Tarantino could have created.

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The film is crafted as a Western set in Wyoming during the dead of winter while blizzard is raging. As the movie begins, we see a stagecoach in the distance moving toward us. Soon we notice a man standing over three corpses while the stagecoach approaches, and he flags it down. The man is Major Marquis Warren (Jackson), a bounty hunter who is taking dead outlaws to Red Rock, where he plans to collect his reward.

Inside the stage is another bounty hunter named John “The Hangman” Ruth (Russell), who also is on his way to Red Rock for a reward, and handcuffed to him is his prisoner named Daisy Domergue (Leigh). Whereas Warren enjoys killing his prey, Ruth keeps his alive for hanging, and Warren ultimately convinces Ruth to let him ride in the stage, with his corpses piled on top.

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Soon another fellow shows up asking for a ride on the stage. He is Chis Mannix (Goggins), who says he’s on his way to Red Rock to assume the position as the new sheriff there. At first Ruth and Warren want no part of Mannix, but when he points out that as the sheriff of Red Rock he will be the one handing out their rewards, they welcome him aboard.

The stage eventually reaches Minnie’s Haberdashery, a combination lodge, store, and eatery where most of the action in the film occurs.

Inside the haberdashery are the following: a Mexican named Bob (Demian Bichir), who says Minnie left him in charge of the place so she could go visit her mother; Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), an Englishman; a cowboy known as Joe Gage (Marsden); and Gen. Sanford Smithers (Dern), a retired Confederate soldier. These four people and the four passengers who arrive by stage comprise the hateful eight of the film’s title.

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What transpires in that lodge when these eight characters are all together defies adequate description, and so I won’t even try. But I will say that it is typical Tarantino, and if you are familiar with his work, you know exactly what that means–violence, blood, profanity, and more violence, blood, and profanity. And if you are a Tarantino fan, you’ll revel in it. Like his seven previous films, “The Hateful Eight” is at once shocking, grotesque, disgusting, disrespectful, racist, satirical, and funny. He also has succeeded in creating a Western unlike anything the genre has ever seen before.

In a lot of films, it’s easy to single out one or two outstanding performances, but in this one the acting is sensational all the way across the board, and this makes the movie doubly interesting because each of the major characters is so unique. In the film’s production notes, some of the actors offered interesting perspectives on their respective roles.

“Maj. Warren is an ex-cavalryman, an ex-slave,” Jackson said. “He joined the war to kill. He’s still that guy. He’s smarter than most people think. He’s not a man of few words. He’s a man of many words, but he only uses them when he needs to. He’s pretty quick on the trigger. He’d rather kill you than talk to you. You have eight people that are very different, that are very dangerous in their own way, and to varying degrees hateful. It’s going to be a fun game for audiences to attach to a character.”

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Speaking about John Ruth, Russell said, “When John catches you, he makes sure you go to trial, and you’re tried, convicted, and then you hang. He stays and watches to make sure you hang. He’s someone who has become well-known for having a penchant for the law.”

“He’s an honorarium to an era that doesn’t exist anymore,” Dern said about Col. Smithers. “He’s beyond his time. He’s trying to figure out what’s going on in the remainder of his life. His wife is gone, the war is over, and his son vanished. He’s the most honest character in where he’s coming from and where he’s going.”

Overall “The Hateful Eight” is a fascinating character study, and in the production notes Madsen offered a perceptive analysis of it.

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“It’s about society. It’s about the psychological boundaries that people have with each other. It’s about friendships and betrayals. It’s a whole bunch of subjects with a cowboy hat on it. Every character is so different from one another. It’s wonderful to watch everyone find their character.”

“The Hateful Eight”is superbly acted, brilliantly directed, and spectacularly photographed, but it definitely is not for everyone. As a Tarantino fan, however, I really enjoyed, and I give it the final score of an enthusiastic eight. The one thing I did not like about it was its running time of nearly three hours. That’s just a bit too much!

 

 

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‘Concussion’ Is A Headache For NFL

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LOGO Every Sunday during the fall and early winter throngs of people file into various stadiums across the country to spend three hours watching muscular behemoths hurl their massive bodies at each other as the 32 teams in the National Football League battle it out to for a chance at the grand prize – a trip to the Super and winning the Lombardi Trophy.

I’m a lifelong football fan. My father played and coached the game, and I played (not very well) in both high school and college. And both my sons participated in the sport. Despite watching myriad games and seeing numerous injuries occur, I never really gave much thought to how harmful the game can be to a player until I learned about the Mike Webster case.

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“Iron Mike,” a Hall of Famer and perennial all-pro center, was the anchor of the Steelers’ offensive line during the glory years, but 17 years of sustaining blows to the head every Sunday during football season ultimately took its toll. Webster’s untimely death at the age of just 50 in 2002 not only shocked and saddened the sports world, but it also initiated a discovery that hit the NFL harder than a head-on tackle by an all- pro linebacker.

When Dr. Bennet Omalu performed the autopsy on Webster, he found a condition he named chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. Naturally Omalu’s discovery upset the NFL authorities because it called attention to the inherent danger of playing football.

Now, this whole matter is the subject of a fascinating new film titled “Concussion” starring Academy Award nominee Will Smith in what may very well be the best performance of his career. In fact, he’s already earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Omalu in the movie.

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“Concussion” is based upon “Brain Game,” an article written for GQ magazine by Jeanne Marie Laskas in 2009 in which she delineated Omalu’s discovery of CTE and his subsequent battle to have the NFL admit that it was a real problem. After Laskas sold the movie rights to the article, Random House approached her to expand the story into a book, which also is titled “Concussion.”

As the film begins, we find Omalu (Smith) working as a forensic pathologist in the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh under the supervision of legendary county coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks). Although those who work with Omalu respect him for his skills, they do find him a bit eccentric because he insists on talking to bodies as he’s performing autopsies on them.

In the meantime former Steelers great Mike Webster (portrayed in heart-breaking fashion by David Morse) is in bad shape. He has lost all his money, is behaving in a bizarre manner, and is living in his pickup truck. A short time latter Webster’s body is discovered in the truck, and Omalu is assigned to do the autopsy. What begins as a routine job for Omalu soon evolves into anything but that when the doctor discovers a shocking abnormality in Webster’s brain. Omalu names the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and subsequently publishes a paper about it, but the NFL refuses to recognize the validity of it, and the battle is on.

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Even though Omalu finds CTE in three other former NFL players who died, the NFL staunchly refused to take Omalu and his work seriously, but Omalu remained steadfast in his position. And when you see the film, you will learn what ultimately happens.

“Concussion” is an important film because it calls attention to a growing problem among those who play football and endure excessive blows to the head. In fact when you see one demonstration about a brain in the film, the whole idea of subjecting it to the kind of punishment it receives in football is downright frightening.

Smith’s brilliant performance in the film certainly should earn him an Oscar nomination. Not only does he have Omalu’s accent down pat, but he also studied the doctor’s mannerisms. In the film’s production notes director Peter Landesman (“Kill the Messenger”) explained how important it was for Smith to observe Omalu at work.

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“It was interesting taking Will to autopsies. What interested me was watching the skill set and the mechanics of performing the autopsy. It was crucial for me that Will was able to watch Bennet’s methodology and to capture it as closely as he could. For both of us to understand the physical dance of a man around a table, cutting up a body — the choreography and rhythm of the hands and the feet. Bennet’s lab and table were immaculate. If he got a speck of blood on his mask or sleeve, he’d immediately change his uniform. I wanted Will to understand how important it was that Bennet’s pristine methodology matched the investment he had in these bodies as souls. He had a relationship with the dead.”

In this film Smith accomplishes that rare feat when instead of simply playing a part, the actor actually becomes the person he’s playing. In an online interview with NPR’s David Greene, Smith explained what he gained from the film.

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“This is probably the farthest role away from me that I’ve ever played, but it was exhilarating. You know, Will Smith with a Nigerian accent could go really, really wrong. But it was a high degree of difficulty, which for me was part of the pleasure of it.

“I’m 47 years old and there’s an experience as an actor when you actually get to put on someone’s life — you’re actually wearing another person for three or four or five months. So when you do that, you naturally take things away. And there’s a deep commitment to service and truth that Dr. Omalu has, and I like how it felt to wear that.”

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Although some have interpreted the film as an indictment against football, Omalu doesn’t see it that way as he pointed out in an online interview with Peter Chattaway.

“There is nothing that could be better than an enlightened people. That is what this movie is about. And when I discovered CTE, that was my objective, to enhance the lives of others, to enhance football. So I cannot be anti-football if my objective is to enhance football, to enhance our lives, to enhance the lives of those who love football. In fact, you could even say that this movie is about saving football!”

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“Concussion” is a powerful, disturbing, and thought-provoking film featuring Smith at the top of his game. The scenes depicting the autopsies are fascinating, and the shots of Pittsburgh are spectacular. The only negative thing I found was that some of the scenes became a bit too talky. Nevertheless, it’s an important movie about a courageous doctor, and it earns the final score of an impressive eight. And if I knew back then what I know now, I probably never would have donned the shoulder pads and helmet.

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Enjoy These 10 Great Christmas Films

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Well, that time of year has rolled around again already. Darkness falls earlier every evening now, the once brilliantly colored trees have lost all those lovely leaves, and the unmistakably foreboding chill in the air from time to time means winter soon will make its inevitable appearance. The good news, however, is that the holidays are upon us, and no matter how dark, cold, and gloomy it may be outside, the warmth of love glows brightly inside as families gather to watch the incomparable excitement twinkle in the eyes of children and grandchildren as they await the magical visit from Santa on Christmas Eve.

The arrival of Christmas also means that television stations will be airing some of the great seasonal films Hollywood has turned out over the years. Of course, all movie buffs have their respective list of favorites, and I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you the 10 films I look forward to seeing this time of year. No doubt you have seen most or all of these, but they are always worth watching again, and if you haven’t seen any of them, be sure to do so because all of them are true classics. Let’s have a look.

10. “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” – 1989

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Every year when the Christmas tree goes up in our house, I can’t help thinking of poor Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase), who wants nothing more than to provide a perfect Christmas for his family. But Clark is one of those poor guys who have a black cloud of bad luck hanging over him, and absolutely nothing goes right for him.

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His problems with stringing lights on his house and putting up his tree are bad enough, but when his redneck brother (Randy Quaid) shows up, things really get out of hand. This hilarious film also stars Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Be sure to spend a holiday evening with Clark and his family. You’ll never forget the experience.

 

9. “Bad Santa” – 2003

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First and foremost be forewarned that this Santa movie is not suitable for children. In fact, it’s rated R because it is rife with profanity spewed from the mouth of Billy Bob Thornton in the role of the most outrageous department store Santa you have ever seen. Willie (Thornton) is an embittered alcoholic who smokes and swears incessantly and who uses the Christmas season to pose as Santa during the day so that he can rob the department store where he is working by night.

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He and his diminutive partner (Tony Cox) have a nice thing going until Willie suddenly learns from a least likely source that he actually had a heart. You haven’t lived until you have see children climb onto Santa Billy Bob’s lap to tell him what they want for Christmas.

 

8. “Die Hard” – 1988

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Although this fantastic action thriller in which Bruce Willis created John McClane, that virtually indestructible New York City Police detective, has nothing to do with Santa’s visit, it qualifies as a Christmas movie because the incredible action takes place on Christmas Eve.

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McClane has traveled to Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles, where he hopes to patch things up with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedalia) at a Christmas party, but he soon finds himself attempting to prevent 12 terrorists from taking over the plaza to execute a huge heist. The film is one of the best in its genre, and McClane’s final words to the terrorists are far from “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

 

7. “Rudloph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — 1964

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Although I’m not a huge fan of animation, no list of great Christmas films would be complete without the 1964 version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” featuring the voices of Billie Mae Richards as Rudolph and the incomparable Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman, the narrator of the story.

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Ever since it first aired 52 years ago, this delightful yarn about how a young reindeer overcomes his had “handicap” of a glowing red nose and wins the friendship of his fellow reindeer has been a staple on TV during the Christmas season. If you’ve never seen it, treat yourself, and you’ll see why it’s an absolute classic.

 

6. “Prancer” – 1989

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This heartwarming film would be a wonderful choice to watch with the children on Christmas Eve. Rebecca Harrell is irresistible as 8-year-old Jessica Riggs, who lives on an apple farm with her father, John (Sam Elliott). Her mother died several years ago, and John is struggling to raise his daughter and son and keep the farm going. Despite the tragedy that has touched her, Jessica celebrates life, and she particularly loves Christmas. One day she discovers an injured reindeer, and she soon comes to believe that the animal is Santa’s Prancer.

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She cares for the reindeer despite some opposition, and she ends up touching the lives of many in the town, including a reclusive old woman beautifully portrayed by Cloris Leachman. If you didn’t believe that reindeer really know how to fly before this, you will after you watch this superbly touching Christmas film.

 

5. “A Christmas Story” – 1983

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An instant holiday favorite from the day it was released, this wonderfully entertaining film appeals to the youngster in all of us. Set against the backdrop of the 1940s, it tells the story of 9-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), who wants Santa to bring him only one present – a Red Ryder Daisy BB gun. The only problem is that no one Ralphie knows thinks he should have such a thing because he will “shoot his eye out.”

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Told through the technique of voiceover ala “The Wonder Years,” the movie is at once funny, moving, and nostalgic. I could really identify with Ralphie because when I was his age, I wore out several of those very guns he desperately wants.

 

4. “White Christmas” – 1954

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No list of great holiday films would be complete without this timeless classic starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen.

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In addition to plenty of comedy and romance, the film features the marvelous music of Irving Berlin, and the title song as sung by Crosby truly is incomparable. If you’ve never seen this one, you’ve been missing a very special holiday present from Hollywood.

 

 

3. “A Christmas Carol” — 1951

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Although countless adaptations of Charles Dickens’ marvelous 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” have appeared on both the silver screen and television, my favorite remains the 1951 version starring Alistair Sim as the curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge. Not only does Sim turn in a masterful performance, but the black and white film is much more effective in capturing the atmosphere of the time than are the more modern color films.

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Watching the miserly Scrooge learn the true meaning of Christmas through a series of frightening visions, serves as a reminder to everyone what a special time of year it is. This film truly is a timeless classic.

 

2. “Miracle on 34th Street” — 1947

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Yes, children, there is a Santa Claus, and all those with doubts have to do to be convinced is watch this truly beautiful film starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and 8-year-old Natalie Wood. A respectable remake came out in 1994, but I highly recommend the much more endearing original.

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Gwenn’s portrayal of the Macy’s Santa, who insists that his real name is Kris Kingle, will make you a believer, and the courtroom scene near the end of the film is one of the most touching moments in the history of cinema. I never miss a showing of this great movie during the holidays, and yes, I still believe in Santa.

1.“It’s A Wonderful Life” – 1946

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Movies simply do not get any better than this one, which is universally recognized as one of the best films ever made. I firmly believe that James Stewart is the finest movie actor who ever lived, and his heart-wrenching portrayal of the beleaguered George Bailey in this great movie offers plenty of support for my opinion. If I could watch only one film during the holiday season, this would be it.

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Its message about finding wealth in a place other than dollars and cents is timeless, and anyone who can watch the ending with dry eyes just doesn’t have a heart. Directed by the legendary Frank Capra, the film also stars Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Henry Travers. Don’t miss this one because it will make you realize just how wonderful life can be.

Here’s wishing you and yours a wonderful and joyous Christmas season. Happy viewing!

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