Friday, January 15, 2021

MLK/FBI: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today in select theaters, and on VOD:

MLK/FBI (Dir. Sam Pollard, 2020)

ike many folks, I’d heard for most of my life that civil rights activist icon Martin Luther King Jr. was the target of intense surveillance by the FBI, but I was unaware of the full extent of the Bureau’s secret campaign. Sam Pollard’s new documentary, MLK/FBI, releasing today on the anniversary of King’s Birthday, explores in excellent depth how it all went down.

A few lines of capitalized text tell us at the beginning of the film that “By exposing the secrets of his private life, the FBI hoped to humiliate King, and weaken his authority as a leader.” The intro goes on to say that, “Now, thanks to newly declassified documents much of their intelligence in available to the public.”

The narrative kicks off with the historic March on Washington in 1963, the occasion of King’s rousing “I Have a Dream” speech, as it was the event that prompted the FBI, particularly FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI’s head of domestic intelligence, William C. Sullivan, to determine that King was “the most dangerous negro in the future of our Nation,” and that they must “use every resource at our disposal to destroy him.”

The doc backtracks to 1956 to give us background on one of the first major fights of the movement which involved segregation, and how King met Stanley Levison, a Jewish lawyer from New York, who became an important advisor to the Reverend. As Levison had ties to the Communist Party, this alarmed the Feds, and they began wiretapping the man’s phones, and bugging his office and hotel rooms. This investigation led to doing the same to King, but instead of the Feds finding subversive info, they discover that their subject has been engaged in a series of infidelities with many various girlfriends.

MLK/FBI swiftly shuffles through such events as King’s meetings with JFK, RFK, and Hoover; the criticism King received for speaking out against the war in Vietnam, the infiltration of King’s and other black organizations by FBI informants, and, of course, the assassination of MLK, through scores of archival photos, lots of well chosen historical footage (some of which I wasn’t familiar with) smartly blended with clips from appropriate period films like THE FBI STORY, WALK A CROOKED MILE, and BIG JIM McCLAIN.

And there are insights aplenty from such interviewees as King associates Andrew Young, and Clarence Jones; David J. Carrow, whose book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From Solo to Memphis provides this film’s basis, and former FBI director James Comey, who remarks, “I think this entire episode represents the darkest part of the Bureau’s history.”

It’s an extremely engrossing history lesson, but one doesn’t have to be a history buff to appreciate Pollard’s examination of how one of America’s greatest moral leaders was scrutinized by a shady agency during an overwhelmingly tumultuous time. MLK/FBI is as essential as a historical documentary can and should be.

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Thursday, January 14, 2021

That Time When My Family Visited A Location For MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (Before It Was A Location For Said Film)

In the early ‘70s, my parents, my brother, and I, lived for a year or so in Cambridge, England. During our time there, we visited many landmarks in Britain and Scotland including Doune Castle, a 14th century stronghold that has the distinction of being the principal location in the 1975 comedy classic, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.

The Terry Gillam and Terry Jones-directed movie has long been one of my favorite films, possibly the movie I’ve seen the most throughout my life, but the thing is – when my family dropped by to check the place out, it was a year before the Monty Python group shot their second feature there. Since the film’s release, Doune Castle has been largely rebranded by the hugely successful comedy, with a gift shop full of HOLY GRAIL memorabilia, and for years even hosted an annual Monty Python Day.

So, I’ll share a few pics from when I went to Doune Castle before going to Doune Castle was cool. This is a picture, taken by my father; of my mother, me, and my brother, on the castle’s rampart, roughly where John Cleese’s French Taunter character was situated in one of the movie
s funniest scenes.

I can only assume that this picture of Doune Castle’s courtyard was taken from where we were on the wall.

HOLY GRAIL fans will most likely recognize it as where the Swamp Castle wedding party that turned into a bloodbath took place.

The members of Monty Python were forced to use Doune Castle as the set for more than several different Castles throughout the film because they lost their permission to use a handful of other castles for locations.

Why, you may ask? Because as Co-Director Terry Gilliam told “immediately before filming started the National Trust cancelled our access to the castles. They said we wouldn’t ‘respect the dignity of the fabric of the buildings.’ These places had dungeons and blood on the walls for God’s sake! They’ve stood for hundreds of years against hordes of invaders, what were we going to do - make people laugh at castles?”

HOLY GRAIL wasn’t the only time that Doune Castle was used as a Medievel location. It first appeared in the 1952 historical epic IVANHOE, and also its 1996 BBC adaptation.

It has also been featured in episodes of the TV series Outlander, and in the mega popular HBO series Game of Thrones, where it served as Winterfell (it was briefly renamed that in honor of the series’ final season).

But for me, Doune Castle will always be known as Camelot, Swamp Castle, Castle Anthrax, and where the Trojan Rabbit met its fate in HOLY GRAIL.

Maybe I’ll find my way back there some day.

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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Christopher Nolan’s Mind-Baffling TENET

I originally wanted to see this film on the big screen months ago, but, you know, with the pandemic and all, I chickened out more than once. With its home video release earlier this month, I caught up with it. So lets get to it:

TENET (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2020)

Christopher Nolan’s 11th film was an unfortunate victim of bad timing as it was scheduled for release in July, one of the worst months of the pandemic. TENET was delayed three times until its release in September when it was declared a flop. Although it definitely underperformed, largely due to its ginormous budget, the movie did make enough to make the top #4 on the top grossing films of 2020 worldwide, but of course, that’s because of its lack of competition.

But enough about how much money it made, let’s get to the question - is it a worthwile watch? Well, I would say for the most part it is, but parts were confusing as Hell, and many times throughout I was thinking that I didn’t know WTF was going on. On its simplest level, TENET is a sci-fi tinged spy thriller. At its most complex, it’s an overly cerebral action picture that relies on a high falutin concept as a means to an end.

It’s gonna be hard as hell to describe this film, but I’ll try to work it out. The protagonist, a CIA agent strongly portrayed by John David Washington (BLACKKKLANSMAN), is actually credited as “The Protagonist” (that’s right, and people actually address him that way), is recruited by an organization named Tenet to track down where inverted bullets from the future came from so that World War III can be inverted.

“Inverted bullets,” you may ask? Well, the most important word in the movie (even more than its title) is inversion is when the entropy of a person, or item, is reversed so that they move backwards in time. This is explained over and over, but still never seems to grab hold as an accessible concept. 

At one point, our hero asks whats going on, and someone says “theyre running a temporal pincer movement.” Well, that clears that all up!

Anyway, Washington’s Protagonist is paired with an operative named Neil (a yet again solid Robert Pattinson), who knows more than he’s letting on about their mission. They literally bungee-jump into the world of arms dealing, and forged paintings, and encounter Kenneth Branaugh as Sater, a menacing Russian antagonist (though he’s not named Antogonist), and his abused wife, Kat played by Elizabeth Debicki, who The Protagonist becomes sweet on.

There are several big action sequences in which planes, boats, cars, and explosions run backwards - the best involving a convoy being ambushed in Tallinn, Estonia – but they are stitched together by countless scenes of exposition. One bit was so full of tedious talking bits that I was unsure what was going on in the scene following involving setting up the crash of a 747 aircraft. Why are they doing this again?

One character, a scientist played by Clémence Poésy, even says “Don’t try to understand it,” early on.

Branaugh (in his second Nolan film after DUNKIRK) as Sater is a pretty clichéd sadistic bad guy character with his clichéd Russian accent, yet he has a few moments of effective villainy. Giving a greater sense of gravitas is Hindu star Dimple Kapadia, but she is saddled with perplexingly cryptic dialogue. But then, seemingly everyone else is too. In his eight appearance in a Nolan film, Michael Caine avoids this trap, but that’s probably because he was one scene, which, of course, he nails.

The majority of Nolan’s films have been mind-boggling, but TENET is more mind-baffling. By the end, which involves inverted and non-inverted armies battling each other in the rubble of a destroyed city in Siberia, I think I could follow things better than before, but the inscrutable plot points that got me there were still getting in the way of having fun with this maze-like material.

I would only really recommend this bloated epic (2 and half hours!) to hardcore Christopher Nolan-heads, or folks that love complex sci-fi. Otherwise you may wind up as confused and mind-baffled as I was after a viewing. A repeated line in the film, said by Washington and Pattinson to each other is “What happened, happened.” That’s the only thing I can be sure of - TENET happened.

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