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Movie Review: “Thirteen Days”

I’m still so excited about this new blog, friends and readers! Thanks for all the comments on my Doctor Who reviews as well as on TTHH‘s Instagram–y’all are awesome! I’ve got several posts lined up for the next few weeks, including (but not limited to) a post featuring my favorite dresses and gowns from the Victoria series, and my review of The Greatest Showman–which, for some unknown, inexplicable reason, I didn’t write when I first saw it at the theater. I shall remedy that quite soon now that I’ve had the chance to see it again. (And yes, I actually have one of its show-stopping songs in my head at this very moment.)

Today, however, I’m going to introduce you to one of my favorite historical films, Thirteen Days [Blu-ray].*

@ Google Images

When I was but a wee hobbit-child, I was obsessed with the Kennedy family. Chalk it up to my rather large Jacqueline Kennedy paper doll collection as well as some beautiful picture books, including When Caroline and John Lived in the White House and Camelot at Dawn. I was obviously Very Young and Innocent, and these days I know a whole lot more, shall we say, unsavory knowledge about the Kennedys–but I still find them fascinating. I’ll even go out on a limb and admit to “Admiration with Caveats” for John and Robert Kennedy.

A good portion of that admiration stems from the Kennedy Administration’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 when Soviet Russia transported nuclear missiles into Communist Cuba. These missiles were capable of striking the United States with only five minutes’ warning, something the American government (unsurprisingly) refused to tolerate. The Soviets, however, refused to pack up the missiles, leading to one of the biggest “who-blinks-first” standoffs in American history.

It was the closest we ever came to full-blown nuclear war.

@ Google Images

Thirteen Days, made in 2000, gives us a close-up and somewhat fictionalized view of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kevin Costner stars as Kenny O’Donnell, President John F. Kennedy’s Appointments Secretary, while Bruce Greenwood (AKA Captain Pike in the Star Trek reboot films) and Steven Culp play President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, respectively.

When the missiles are first discovered by American surveillance planes, everybody is alarmed–and of course, everybody wants to let the Soviet Union know in no uncertain terms that they won’t tolerate missiles so close to the homeland. But here’s the thing: nobody can agree on how to do that. The Joint Chiefs of Staff advise President Kennedy to bomb the daylights out of Cuba, followed by an invasion. President Kennedy, however, sees the bigger picture–and the bigger problem. If America bombs Cuba it won’t just be a cruel move (a superpower bombing a tiny country, even a Communist one, never looks good), but the Soviets will retaliate by attacking Berlin. In 1962, Berlin was split between east and west, the east side ruled by the Soviets and the west by its own, free government. And in 1962, Berlin (and indeed all of Germany and Western Europe) were under the protection of the United States.

At the height of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear warfare was on everyone’s mind, an attack on Berlin would be disastrous. So President Kennedy and his allies have to figure out a way to get rid of those missiles…without triggering the world’s worst nightmare.

@ Google Images

Part of what makes this movie so great is that it immerses you in the moment. You follow the characters into their homes and see them at their lowest, most vulnerable moments, out of the glare of the spotlight. You also follow minor characters, like the courageous fighter pilots who risk their lives taking photos of the Soviet missiles. There are even several scenes that mimic actual footage from the Kennedy White House, like the ones where the Kennedy brothers and Kenny O’Donnell are walking outside in intense conversation. It all feels very real and immediate.

Plus, the actors nail the mannerisms and accents of the real historical figures. Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp are at the top (maybe the very top) of my list of “Actors Who Look Exactly Like The People They Play.” Kevin Costner, not so much–but I haven’t seen him play a character I didn’t like, so no complaints here.

Unfortunately, Thirteen Days does have a lot of bad language–which, given the extremely stressful situation, probably isn’t that unrealistic. And Christian viewers will have a worldview quibble with one of the final scenes in which Kenny O’Donnell, overwhelmed by the looming probably of a nuclear war, tells his wife:

If the sun comes up tomorrow, it is only because of men of good will. And that’s all there is between us and the devil.

And then a few scenes later, when (spoilers!) the Cuban Missile Crisis is finally averted, he follows it up with the comment:

The sun came up. Every day the sun comes up says something about us.

It’s a humanistic platitude. In reality, Planet Earth’s survival depends not on men of good will (though they are important and should be valued and appreciated!), but on the sovereign goodness of an all-powerful, all-knowing God. In fact, O’Donnell’s statement runs counter to the inscription on a plaque that sits (and really did sit) on President Kennedy’s desk:

“Oh God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

IMDB.com

Still, Thirteen Days is a very vivid and powerful depiction of one of the most suspenseful events of the Cold War. On that merit alone, it’s well worth watching!

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TV Review: Doctor Who, Series 9

Last week I reviewed Doctor Who: Series 8, Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Twelfth Doctor. As promised, this week I’m delving into Doctor Who: Complete Series 9*, Jenna Coleman’s last season as Clara Oswald.

Promotional image (with prominently-featured hand-holding) from http://www.farfarawaysite.com/section/doctor/gallery6/gallery.htm

Series 9 wowed me from the get-go in ways that Series 8 hadn’t. In fact, it felt much more similar to Matt Smith’s final season and Jenna Coleman’s first. The Doctor and Clara’s camaraderie was on shaky ground for most of Series 8, but after a triumphant reunion in Series 9’s opening Inception-style Christmas Special, they’re finally on equal, complementary footing again.

And it’s awesome.

“The Girl Who Died.” (This picture is epic.) http://www.farfarawaysite.com/section/doctor/gallery6/gallery.htm

Series 9 is composed mostly of two-parters with only three stand-alone episodes, if you count the bookending Christmas Specials. And except for “Under the Lake”/”Before the Flood,” which have some pretty spooky overtones, they’re excellent!  The moral dilemmas of “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar” (don’t worry, no actual witches involved), for example, are not only believable but beautifully resolved. Plus, we get to see the hilarious villain Missy again (she is way too much fun) and DALEKS!

Doctor Who meets A Bug’s Life” is the best way to describe “The Girl Who Died,” which I really enjoyed; its sequel, “The Woman Who Lived,” isn’t quite as sharp, but still fun and critical to the complex, tragic character development of Ashildr (the Viking girl seen above, played by Maisie Williams).

“The Zygon Invasion”/”The Zygon Inversion” is my favorite two-parter. It’s just good storytelling. The parallels to current events are obvious but tastefully handled, the high stakes are balanced well with alternating humor and emotion, and the Doctor’s passionate speech at the end is one of my favorite scenes ever.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Clara are closer than they’ve ever been. She makes him cue cards so he’ll know how to respond appropriately in emotional situations; he helps her students with school assignments; he fights tooth and nail for her; she refuses to let him face any danger alone. The guy who once insisted he “wasn’t a hugging person anymore” now literally sweeps her off her feet in unexpected hugs and she cuddles him while they’re at the Tardis console. When he thinks he’s about to die she bellows down the phone at him, “If you love me in any way, you’ll come back!“–while he tells her to her face that one day the memory of her will hurt so much he won’t be able to breathe.

However you want to define it, the Doctor and Clara do love each other–and it affects everything they do. (And I mean, she did admit he’s the only man besides Danny Pink who she would ever marry, so…there’s that.)

“The Woman Who Lived.” (Behold the cuddles!!!) http://kissthemgoodbye.net/doctorwho/thumbnails.php?album=121&page=13

Adventures and possibly romantic fluff, however, are overshadowed by the coming of an ominous Gallifreyan legend, the Hybrid. Nobody really knows what it is except that it’s the combination of two powerful warrior races that will “stand over the ruins of Gallifrey and unravel the Web of Time, breaking a billion hearts to heal its own.” What–or who–is the Hybrid? Is it half-Time Lord, half-Dalek? Half-human, half-Mire, like Ashildr? Or is it not just one person, but two? A Time Lord and…a human?

This question finds its answer in the epic three-parter conclusion: “Face the Raven,” “Heaven Sent,” and “Hell Bent.”

I already knew Clara would sacrifice her life for Rigsy, an old friend from Series 8, in “Face the Raven”–but that didn’t mean her death was any less shocking. As Clara prepares to take Rigsy’s wrongfully-imposed death sentence she urges the Doctor not to take revenge, to be brave, and to be “a little proud” of her. He can hardly speak, and for once there’s nothing he can do; he can only kiss her hand and beg her to stay with him. But Clara knows she can’t stay this time. She whispers goodbye, walks out into the street, and faces her death with quiet courage. I cried and cried. It was devastating.

Turns out there are more powerful forces at work, though, and the Doctor ends up trapped in a mysterious castle in an unknown universe for a very, very long time. I really don’t want to spoil the reason why–I don’t even think I could without a long-winded explanation of Gallifreyan traditions–but suffice it to say I have never, ever, watched anything like “Heaven Sent” before in my life. It was so well-done, so intricate, and so original, I could probably watch it three or four times and still catch something new.

(Can I just say, too, what an incredible actor Peter Capaldi is? I already knew he was good, but he was absolutely breathtaking in this one.)

After the otherworldly mysteries of “Heaven Sent,” however, we go straight into the grand finale, “Hell Bent,” in which the Doctor finally finds himself back on his home planet and does everything he can to get Clara back. It’s an emotional roller-coaster from beginning to end, with the Doctor at the end of his rope, chaos on Gallifrey, Clara’s return, and stunning revelations–but it ends with the Doctor and Clara getting to save each other one last time. And it’s right and it’s good…even if it’s bittersweet.

“Hell Bent.” (Yes, he has a guitar. Guitars are cool now.) http://jenna-coleman.com/gallery/thumbnails.php?album=558

We learn who the Hybrid is, and we learn why it–or rather, they–are so dangerous. But we also get to see the Hybrid heal its own heart, just as the prophecy foretold. It’s an appropriate end, in my opinion, for the Clever Boy and the Impossible Girl, both of whom have been sacrificing everything for each other since the very beginning.

I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting my personal collection of Doctor Who DVDS for many years to come. I know there’s a lot more of the show out there–50-plus years’ worth!–but I’ve already laughed and cried and scolded and critiqued and fallen just a bit in love with (*ahem*) Certain Characters…and whenever I do that, it usually means I’ve found myself a good story.

So even if the Doctor and Clara’s tale is all I ever get to see, I’d say it’s been well worth the emotional investment.

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TV Review: Doctor Who, Series 8

I have to admit, I’m so excited about posting my first review on this new blog. I’m double-excited because it’s all about my new favorite show–and triple-excited because it’s all about my new favorite show’s first season with my new favorite Doctor!

My last Doctor Who review focused on Doctor Who: Series Seven, Part Two*, starring Matt Smith (AKA Prince Philip in The Crown) as the eleventh incarnation of the time-traveling Doctor, and Jenna Coleman as his new companion Clara Oswald. By the time I finished Series 7, the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, and Eleven’s final Christmas Special The Time of the Doctor, I was very fond not only of Clara but of the Doctor himself.

But there’s only one way a show like this can last for 50+ years: the same guy can’t play the Doctor forever. So…he “regenerates” every few years. He’s usually injured (often in an act of self-sacrifice) and regenerates into a new body–which means we say goodbye to the previous actor and hello to a new one. After getting so attached to Eleven, I didn’t want to say goodbye! But my curiosity was piqued by the cliff-hanger conclusion of The Time of the Doctor when Eleven transformed into Twelve in front of Clara–so I got Doctor Who: Season 8* and Doctor Who: Complete Series 9* with some of my birthday money.

And all my fears were completely groundless.

Someone: “So when did you fall in love?”

Me, dreamily: “Oh, when he started raving about ‘attack eyebrows’ and being Scottish in a late-Victorian alleyway.”

Matt Smith is wonderful. No doubt about that. And he is my first Doctor–I’ll always love him! But Peter Capaldi is incandescently brilliant. He blows all your expectations out of the water. His Doctor is much older, more serious, more socially-awkward–but he’s also more emotionally vulnerable, and still very, very funny. Don’t be fooled by that flinty front or those eyebrows: he’s actually got a heart the size of Texas. And trust me: he is just plain COOL. I screeched when he beat Robin Hood in the archery tournament. (Oh yes, that did happen.)

Series 8 is all about Twelve coming into his own and navigating his relationship with his best friend, Clara Oswald. As for Clara, she really doesn’t know at first if she can keep traveling with him. He just seems so different from the quirky sweetheart she knew–and yet she knows, deep down, that he is the same person. But then she’s also got a new boyfriend, and that causes major problems.

“In the Forest of the Night.” Still from http://www.farfarawaysite.com/section/doctor/gallery.htm

Throw in a whole story arc involving the Doctor’s longtime nemesis and fellow Gallifreyan, the Master/Missy, and this series was loaded with tension and character development.

Sometimes this did get frustrating, for two reasons:

Number One: I’m not a fan of love triangles (sorry, non-Doctor/Clara shippers, but I don’t know how else to describe the whole Doctor/Clara/Danny problem). At times I even wanted to smack Clara a la Edna Mode because she made some very stupid decisions in this situation. (*Edna voice* You–are in love–with the Doctor–pull–yourself–togethah!!!) 

Number Two: I found the story of Missy’s Army of the Dead rather disturbing on biblical grounds. Obviously, souls cannot be filed away in a database to be resurrected as Cybermen soldiers. The fact that Missy portrayed the database as “the afterlife” only made it more creepy. This wasn’t an issue for most episodes, but it did escalate in the two-part series finale. When my sister watched it I only showed her the most important scenes in Part 1 and moved on to Part 2, which was much less icky.

However, both the Doctor and Clara’s character development were outstanding. Doctor Who, like Star Trek, is a character-driven show: the episodes’ independent plots may be loosely connected by an over-arching story or mystery (in this case, Missy’s Cybermen army), but each one is driven by the same characters and their own emotional journeys.

Series 8 begins with the Doctor wrestling with his new, abrasive personality, wondering if he really is a good man–but ends with him cheerfully accepting that he’s just “an idiot, with a box and a screwdriver. Just passing through, helping out, learning!” The very fact that he agonized so much over whether or not he was a good man proves that he is one. He’s not perfect. He may be a Time Lord with a massive intellect, but he’s still limited, still finite, still prone to terrible blunders. But so long as he is never cruel and never cowardly, he will always be a hero.

“In the Forest of the Night.” Still from http://www.farfarawaysite.com/section/doctor/gallery.htm

And while the Doctor learns how to balance between heart and head, logic and emotion, truth and compassion, Clara learns how to truly help, trust, and love him even when neither of them are being very lovable. Clara makes some really dumb moves in this series: she tells way too many lies, lets her emotions get the better of her, and totally misdirects her anger when tragedy strikes. (To be honest, I think a lot of this is mostly just Steven Moffat having to rewrite her whole story after Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman turned out to have such smashing chemistry and everybody realized that any other boyfriend figure was *ahem* totally unnecessary–but I digress.)

That said, Clara quickly realizes that Twelve is not Eleven, and that he needs her desperately. “She’s my carer,” he says. “She cares so I don’t have to.” Of course, that’s rubbish. The Doctor cares very much. But Clara definitely brings out the softer side in him. She is the McCoy to his Spock. As you might expect, this does lead to some epic shouting matches, but it also leads to a greater understanding of each other. By the end of the series Clara and the Doctor can practically finish each other’s thoughts, and even when she betrays him in a horrific way and asks him why he still wants anything to do with her, his reply is simple and honest:

Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?

It’s a mind-blowing moment because you realize, quite abruptly, that the Doctor really will do anything for Clara. And as we see in the series’ cliffhanger conclusion, she will do the same for him.

Series 8 was full of good old-fashioned fun (“Robot of Sherwood,” “Flatline”), nail-biting suspense (“Listen,” “The Mummy on the Orient Express”) and some unfortunate weirdness (mainly “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven”)–and in spite of some caveats, I really enjoyed it. But here’s your sneak peek for my next post: Series 9 was incredible, and I haven’t cried that hard for a TV show since last year’s Call the Midwife. 

But apparently people have been crying over Doctor Who for years, so I’m nothing unusual. As the Doctor would say,

Ah, there is nothing new under the sun!

(*pauses a beat*)

Above it, on the other hand…