Top Ten Favorite HISTORY Documentaries

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

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“OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” (2013) Review

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“OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” (2013) Review

During the late winter/early spring of 2013, the American public found itself bombarded with constant media coverage of militaristic chest thumping from North Korea. By some strange coincidence, Hollywood released two movies featuring the North Koreans as the main villains between September 2012 and March 2013. One of those movies turned out to be the recent action thriller called “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” told the story of a disgraced U.S. Secret Service agent forced to rescue the President of the United from North Korean terrorists that have infiltrated and taken over the White House. I might as well start from the beginning. The movie begins with former Army Ranger-turned-Secret Service Agent Mike Banning is serving as lead agent for the Presidential Detail that guards President Benjamin Asher and the latter’s wife and son. During a drive from Camp David, the car conveying President Asher and First Lady Margaret Asher crashes against a bridge railing. Banning manages to save the President, but the vehicle falls into the river before he and the rest of the detail can save the First Lady and two other agents. Because the sight of Banning triggers President Asher’s memories of his wife’s death, Banning is taken off the Presidential Detail.

Eighteen months later, President Asher finds himself facing a state visit from South Korea’s Prime Minister Lee Tae-Woo. Korean-led guerilla forces launch a combined air and ground attack upon Washington D.C. and more specifically, the White House. The attack, led by an ex-North Korean terrorist named Kang Yeonsak, results in the murder of Prime Minister Lee and the capture of President Asher, Vice-President Charlie Rodriguez and Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan. Kang wants the U.S. forces in South Korea to withdraw from the Korean Pennisula and the access codes to the Cerberus system: a fail-safe device that self-detonates any U.S. nuclear missiles during an abort. Meanwhile, Banning was on his way to the White House to ask the President to allow him back on the detail, when he gets caught up in the attack. Banning participates in the defense of the White House led by fellow Agent Roma, but nearly all of the defenders are killed. However Banning manages to get inside the White House and establish contact with Head of the Secret Service Lynne Jacobs, Speaker of the House Allan Trumball, and Chief of Staff General Edward Clegg. Then proceeds to find a way to save the President and other hostages.

The plot for “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” sounds very exciting. It also sounds very familiar. Some critic or blogger once compared it to some other movie I have never seen. But “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” reminded me of the 1997 Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman movie, “AIR FORCE ONE”. Let me be frank. I despised “AIR FORCE ONE” when I first saw it in the theaters. I still despise it. There is nothing more ludicrous than the President of the United States as an action hero.“OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” has its own share of flaws. But I am so relieved that screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt did not transform President Asher into an action hero. But the two movies do share a good number of similarities:

*Both movies feature the U.S. President and personnel being held hostage.
*The hostage situation in both movies are in the presidential settings of either the White House or Air Force One.
*The Vice-President becomes head of state in the 1997 movie. The Speaker of the House becomes head of state in the 2013 film.
*Kazakhstan terrorists disguised as foreign press infiltrate Air Force One. North Korean terrorists disguised as South Korean diplomats infiltrate the White House.
*A Secret Service agent is a mole for the Kazakh terrorists in the 1997 film. A former Secret Service agent is a mole for the North Korean terrorists.

But despite these similarities, I still liked “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”. Somewhat. For me, the movie’s major virtue proved to be its more plausible hero. Instead of using the President of the United States as the main hero, the leading man for “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” turned out to be a former Army Ranger-turned-Secret Service agent. And the movie’s action struck me as very exciting and well directed by Antoine Fuqua. I was especially impressed by the long sequence that featured the North Korean terrorists’ attack upon and takeover of the White House. The movie also benefitted from the emotional connection between Banning and President Asher, thanks to Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart’s performances. The pair’s connection reminded me of the Jack Bauer/President David Palmer relationship from FOX-TV’s“24”. What made the Banning/Asher’s relationship more interesting is that it was nearly severed by the First Lady’s death in the film’s first twenty minutes. Rothenberger and Benedikt’s screenplay proved to be somewhat decent. But I do feel it may have been somewhat undermined by certain sequences and plotlines.

While watching the first half of “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”, I assumed that the North Koreans’ takeover of the White House would prove to be a plot for something bigger – to generate a war between the U.S. and North Korea, resulting in the fall of Communism on the Korean Pennisula. The reason I had made such assumptions was due to my misguided belief that the Hollywood studios had learned to overcome such one-dimensional demonization of another country – especially one that did not harbor Western or non-Communist beliefs. I really should have known better, considering the release of the 2012 remake, “RED DAWN” and the media’s continuing penchant for villifying all Muslims – regardless of whether or not they are terrorists. As much as I had enjoyed the action and relationships in “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”, a part of me felt disappointed by the realization that Kang and his followers were behind the attack and the hostage situation all along. I also felt somewhat perplexed.

Think of it. Two (or three) of Kang’s people managed to steal a U.S. military plane for an aerial attack on the White House. The theft of the plane was never discovered or reported by the U.S. military. Nor was the plane detected, until it was flying over the capital’s airspace. And the U.S. sent only one fighter jet to force it down. And all of this happened in a story set in the post-9/11 world. Are you kidding me? It gets worse. During the movie’s last half hour, Kang’s surviving men post a stolen advanced anti-aircraft called Hydra 6 on the White House roof to kill approaching teams of U.S. Navy SEALs being conveyed to the presidential home by helicopters. Once again, the terrorists managed to steal advanced U.S. military weaponry in the country’s post-9/11 era. No wonder I had originally assumed that some kind of high-level American conspiracy was involved with the terrorists.

Some of the performances in “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” struck me as first-rate. Gerard Butler made an excellent and likable action hero in his portrayal of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning. And if I must be honest, I have not really enjoyed a performance of his in four years. Considering that Aaron Eckhart is ten years younger than Harrison Ford was when the latter portrayed a U.S. president in “AIR FORCE ONE”, I am surprised that the screenwriters and Fuqua did not allow him to indulge in some kind of heroic action. But I must admit that he conveyed his usual intensity and top-notch acting skills in portraying a head-of-state in a dangerous and vulnerable state. Angela Bassett proved to be equally intense and entertaining as Banning’s immediate supervisor and head of Secret Service Lynne Jacobs. Actually, I enjoyed her performance in this film a lot more than I did her take on a C.I.A. station chief in “THIS MEANS WAR”. Rick Yune gave a subtle, yet menacing performance as leader of the North Korean terrorists, Kang Yeonsak. It is a pity that he has been limited to portraying villains most of his career. With his looks and presence, he should be garnering “good guys” roles by now. Ashley Judd had a brief role as First Lady Margaret Asher and did a very nice job with it. Cole Hauser, whom I last saw in “A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD”, portrayed Banning’s Secret Service colleague, Agent Roma. Fortunately, he managed to last a bit longer on screen than he did in the former movie. And even more fortunate, his Agent Roma died at the hands of the terrorists with style and balls. I can only hope that his next screen appearance will last even longer.

And there were the performances that did not exactly impress me. Some of them came from actors and actresses for whom I usually have a high regard. I love Morgan Freeman, but his performance as Speaker of the House Allan Trumball struck me as somewhat . . . tired. He spent a good deal of the movie either looking tired or reacting to someone else’s dialogue with a stare of disbelief. I am also a fan of Melissa Leo, but her portrayal of Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan seemed a little hammy or frantic at times. I realize that her character was trying to be tough in the face of the terrorists, but . . . well . . . she struck me as a bit hammy. Speaking of hammy, Robert Forster’s performance as Chief of Staff General Edward Clegg was in danger of going far beyond over-the-top. Perhaps his performance seemed unusually aggressive in comparison to Freeman’s tiredness. Then again . . . who knows? Radha Mitchell gave a nice performance as Banning’s wife, Leah. But if I must be honest, she came off as a second-rate Cathy Ryan from the Tom Clancy movies – especially since her character was a nurse. Worst of all, she did not have enough screen time, as far as I am concerned. And finally, there was Dylan McDermott, who portrayed ex-Secret Service Agent Dave Forbes, who became a private bodyguard and mole within the South Korean detail. Hmmm . . . how can I say this? McDermott did not exactly put much effort in hiding his villainy from the audience in the movie’s first half. One glance at his shifty expressions led me to correctly guess that he would be working for the terrorists. And McDermott is usually more subtle than this.

I realize that in the end, “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” came off as a somewhat strident message against North Korea, leading me to compare it to one of those old anti-Communist films from the 1950s or even the 1980s. So . . . why do I still like it? One, screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt wrote a decent story, despite some flaws. Two, Antoine Fuqua handled the movie’s action, pacing and a good number of performances with great skill. Three, there were some pretty good performances in the movie – especially from Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett and Rick Yune. But most importantly, “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” did not follow the ludicrous example of “AIR FORCE ONE” by allowing its Presidential character engage in heroic actions. For that I am truly grateful to the screenwriters and Fuqua.

“THIS MEANS WAR” (2012) Review

“THIS MEANS WAR” (2012) Review

The story idea of two male friends battling for the affections of one woman has not been new to Hollywood. One of the earliest examples of this kind of plot proved to Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 adaptation of Noel Coward’s play. The latest film to play out this scenario was McG’s movie, “THIS MEANS WAR”.

Written by Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg, “THIS MEANS WAR” began two C.I.A. agents and best friends FDR Foster and Tuck Henson being deployed to Hong Kong to prevent international criminals/brothers Heinrich and Jonas from acquiring a weapon of mass destruction. Unfortunately, the assignment goes awry, resulting in the death of Jonas and Heinrich swearing revenge against FDR and Tuck. For the two agents’ protection, their boss, Collins, assigns them to desk duty upon returning to the U.S.

While both are busy investigating the whereabouts of Heinrich, the divorced Tuck decides to find a new girlfriend via online dating. He eventually meets a product testing executive named Lauren Scott and falls for her. Not long after the two first met, womanizer FDR meets Lauren at a video store and unsuccessfully hits on her. But when FDR helps her fool an ex-boyfriend into believing she had a boyfriend, the pair eventually become attracted to one another. Lauren feels guilty about dating two men, but her girlfriend Trish convinces her to give it a try to see whom she likes best. Meanwhile, FDR and Tuck discover they are both dating Lauren and eventually begin to compete for her hand. While the two agents continue to compete for Lauren’s love, Heinrich sets about investigating their whereabouts in order to seek revenge.

Although “THIS MEANS WAR” was not a big box office hit, it did manage to earn over twice its budget, which made it a minimal success. I really did not expect much from the film, but I must admit that the movie’s plot did intrigue me. How did I feel about it? In some ways, “THIS MEANS WAR” reminds me of the 2005 action comedy, “MR. AND MRS. SMITH”. In other words, the movie’s romance and comedy overshadowed its plot line. And if I must be honest, this did not bother me one bit. The movie’s action did not attract my attention in the first place.

However, at least the action in “MR. AND MRS. SMITH” struck me as more substantial and played a major role in the romance and comedy between the two major characters. I cannot say the same for “THIS MEANS WAR”. The movie’s action nearly struck me as irrelevant and the characters of FDR and Tuck could have easily had other professions. And I do have one complaint about the movie’s love triangle. A part of me wished that it could have ended on the same note as “DESIGN FOR LIVING”. Instead, it ended with Lauren choosing one man over the other. And I found this resolution lacking a little bite or originality.

Aside from Lauren eventually choosing one man over the other, I cannot deny that I found the movie’s romantic plot very satisfying. More importantly, it was surprisingly funny. “THIS MEANS WAR” could boast some hilarious scenes and dialogue that had me shaking with laughter. Among my favorite moments include Lauren and Tuck’s afternoon at a paintball field, and FDR’s efforts to impress Lauren at a dog pound. Thanks to Dowling and Kinberg’s script and McG’s direction, the movie featured some hilarious conversations in the movie. My favorite scene included a conversation between Lauren and Trish overheard by the two men, in which she compared both their virtues and shortcomings. But even the movie’s final action scene included a hilarious moment that featured Trish during a high speed chase.

“THIS MEANS WAR” had a solid cast that included pleasant performances from Rosemary Harris, who portrayed FDR’s grandmother; Warren Christie as Lauren’s too perfect boyfriend; John Paul Rittan as Tuck’s son Joe; and Abigail Spencer as his ex-wife, Katie. Both Angela Bassett and Til Schweiger were appropriately intimidating as FDR and Tuck’s C.I.A. supervisor, and master criminal Heinrich. However, there were moments when I found Bassett’s performance to be a little over-the-top and Schweiger seemed a bit wasted in his all too brief appearances. The one supporting performance that really impressed me came from comedienne Chelsea Handler. One could accuse Handler of taking her stand-up routine and utilizing it in her role as Lauren’s best friend, Trish. Fortunately, Handler proved to be a first-rate comic actress who also handled her more poignant moments featuring the character’s marriage very well.

But the three performances that made this movie truly enjoyable came from Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy. I was surprised by the high level of chemistry between the three performers. Not only did Witherspoon possessed great chemistry with the two actors individually, but both Pine and Hardy managed to create a first-rate “bromance” between them. It seemed a shame that Witherspoon’s character ended up choosing one over the other. Also, Witherspoon was charming and witty as the beleaguered Lauren. Pine made a first-rate ladies’ man and still managed to convey his character’s feelings for the leading lady as very believable. And Hardy expertly walked a fine line as an introverted romantic and aggressive intelligence agent.

“THIS MEANS WAR” was not perfect. The action subplot was not as strong as I thought it could be. Which lead me to believe that the professions of the two male protagonists could have easily been something other than C.I.A. agents. But I cannot deny that McG directed a very funny movie, which was blessed with three talented performers in the lead. To my surprise, I ended up enjoying “THIS MEANS WAR” very much.

“GREEN LANTERN” (2011) Review

“GREEN LANTERN” (2011) Review

Green seemed to be the dominate colors regarding costumed crime fighters this year. The year 2011 marked the end of the television series, “SMALLVILLE”, which featured Superman’s colleague, the Green Arrow. Last January saw the release of “THE GREEN HORNET”, starring Seth Rogen and Jay Chou. And just recently, Warner Brothers Studios released their adaptation on the DC Comics superhero, the Green Lantern. 

Directed by Martin Campbell, “THE GREEN LANTERN” told the story of a hotshot test pilot for Ferris Aircraft named Hal Jordan, who becomes the Green Lantern . . . or one of them. Before Earth was formed, a group of beings called the Guardians of the Universe used the green essence of willpower to create an intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps. One such Green Lantern, Abin Sur defeated a fear-essence being Parallax and imprisoned him in the Lost Sector on the ruined planet Ryut. However, Parallax eventually escapes from his prison, kills four Green Lanterns and destroys two planets. After Parallax mortally wounds Abin Sur. Dying, the latter crashes on Earth and commands his Green Lantern ring to find a worthy successor.

Hal Jordan is chosen by the ring and transported to the crash site, where Abin Sur appoints him a Green Lantern, by telling him to take the lantern and speak the oath. At home he says the oath of the Green Lanterns while under trance from the glow of the lantern. Hal is whisked away to the Green Lantern Corps home planet of Oa, where he meets and trains with Tomar-Re and Kilowog. He encounters Corps leader Sinestro, who is not pleased that a human, which is primitive compared to other species, has become a Green Lantern. Meanwhile, scientist Hector Hammond is summoned by his father, Senator Robert Hammond to a secret government facility to perform an autopsy on Abin Sur’s body. A piece of Parallax from inside the corpse inserts itself inside Hector, mutating the latter and giving him telepathic and telekinetic abilities . . . at the cost of his sanity. Throughout the movie, Hal not only has to deal with his private insecurities and fears about being a Green Lantern; the uneasy state of his relationship with his boss/ex-girlfriend, Carol Ferris; and most importantly, the increasingly dangerous Hector and Parallax, who is slowly making its way toward Earth.

Unfortunately for “GREEN LANTERN”, it flopped at the box office. Because of its $200 million budget, it is considered one of the biggest failures of the summer and a major embarrassment for Warner Brothers. The critics tore the film apart before it even reached the movie theaters. And a good number of moviegoers stayed away in droves. In fact, its failure reminded me of what happened to “SPEED RACER” back in 2008, another Warner Brothers release. Pity. Because I enjoyed “GREEN LANTERN” and thought it was a pretty solid adaptation of the famous comic book hero.

Now “GREEN LANTERN” was not the best superhero movie that I have ever seen. The movie’s plot struck me as one of those typical superhero origins tale that every fan of this type of movie genre has to . . . well, endure. Some of these origins have managed to knock my socks off. “GREEN LANTERN” failed to do so. And I do have a major complaint about the screenplay written by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg. I thought it had failed to form a stronger connection . . . or relationship between the infected Hector Hammond and Parallax. The two characters only shared one scene and seemed over pretty damn quick.

But I do believe that the critics’ enmity was undeserved. “GREEN LANTERN” provided plenty of drama, laughs, action and special effects. The screenwriters did a great job in developing Hal Jordan’s character, allowing actor Ryan Reynolds plenty of dramatic meat to show off his acting skills. The screenplay also provided some strongly written supporting characters – especially Carol Ferris, Sinestro, and Hector Hammond, who was provided a strong subplot involving his relationship with his father. And aside from my disappointment over the Hector-Parallax connection, I thought the screenwriters did an excellent job in providing a strong connection between Hal’s personal demons, his introduction to the Green Lantern Corps and the dangers of Parallax.

The behind-the-scenes production for “GREEN LANTERN” struck me as outstanding. I was very impressed. Felicity Browning lead a team that provided first rate makeup for some of the cast. I was especially impressed by their work on Mark Strong, Peter Sarsgaard, and even Ryan Reynolds’ eyes, while in his Green Lantern garb. But Grant Major’s production designs for both the planet of Oa really blew me away. I believe the visual effects supervised by Jim Berney and special effects by John S. Baker probably helped. Not only was I impressed by the designs and effects featured in the Oa sequences, but also the design of Parallax, which freaked me out a bit.

As I had earlier pointed out, the movie’s screenwriters did a solid job in their characterization of Hal, making him a complex and interesting character. But it would have never worked without Ryan Reynolds, who not only provided his trademark wit to his performance, but also provided Hal with a great deal of pathos and complexity. Reynolds also created great chemistry with his co-star Blake Lively. I had been very impressed by her performance in last year’s movie, “THE TOWN”. And her performance as Hal’s ex-girlfriend, boss and fellow test pilot, Carol Ferris; only proved that my original opinion of her acting talents was not a fluke. She still managed to be very impressive.

Ever since I saw him in “JARHEAD”, I have been a fan of Peter Sarsgaard. His portrayal of Hector Hammond, the insecure senator’s son and scientist, has made me into an even bigger fan. I think it was a testament to Sarsgaard’s acting talent that he allowed Hector to remain a sympathetic character, despite his transformation into a villain from the Parallax infection. And it has been a while since I have seen Mark Strong portray a good guy – three years to be exact. For me, his portrayal of fellow Green Lantern Sinestro, was spot on . . . and a breath of fresh air. Both Angela Bassett and Tim Robbins provided solid support as government scientist Dr. Waller and Hector’s father, Senator Robert Hammond. Mind you, I found nothing remarkable about Bassett’s role, which is not surprising, thanks to the screenwriters. But it was interesting to see Robbins portray a somewhat smarmy personality, who seemed more interested in his son’s ambitions (or lack of) than in his son.

Look, “GREEN LANTERN” may not be the one of the best comic book hero movies ever made. And it does not strike me as one of the most original I have ever seen. But I do not believe it deserved the harsh words that many movie critics dumped on it. Thanks to the behind-the-scenes production, Martin Campbell’s direction and the cast led by Ryan Reynolds, I thought that “GREEN LANTERN” turned out to be a solid and entertaining film.