Dylan O’Brien plays super-hero in Vince Flynn’s “American Assassin”, and the subject matter is very grave in the world of Trump

On the evening of September 11, 2001 I attended a screening of Michael Cuesta’s “L.I.E. ” (Long Island Expressway) at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis.  I won’t dawdle on the theme right now (a teen’s relationship with an older man played by Brian Cox), but I want to recall that I met Cuesta in a hotel bar after the show – because he couldn’t fly back to New York in the wake of the 9/11 groundings (No, the bar wasn’t the Saloon or the Nineties.)

I met author Vince Flynn at a booksigning party at a Barnes and Noble in Edina, for his self-published “Term Limits” (them it was Cloak and Dagger Press. before Pocket Books gave him a contract), in the fall of 1997, just after I had moved to Minneapolis myself.  We had a discussion about the whole process, which I had just executed with my own first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book.

Vince Flynn beat me to the movies.  He also died in 2013 at age 47 of unusually aggressive prostate cancer.

Flynn’s genre of techno-thrillers, sometimes compared to Tom Clancy,  adapted quickly to the end of the old Cold War and the new world of terrorism and rogue and failed states

Mike Cuesta’s latest film  comes from Flynn’s “American Assassin” (2010) which turns out to be eerily prescient with the concern over a rogue state using nuclear weapons.  This time, the state is Iran, rather than North Korea.

But the movie is also part of the Mitch Rapp series.  This time, Rapp is played by 26-year-old Dylan O’Brien (“Rhe Maze”).  In the opening scene, Mitch is with his fiancée (Charlotte Vega) on a Florida beach when a gruesome radical Islamist terror attack mows down everyone on the beach with automatic weapons.  Mitch loses his love despite surviving himself with minor injuries. He swears personal revenge.  Back in his Rhode Island apartment, having flunked out of college, he finds his calling. He pretends to be a Muslim and gets recruited by ISIS on Twitter (an activity Trump says he wants to shut down despite his own use of the platform) and goes into the Dark Web.  Soon he is in Libya.  But he has already made arrangements with other mercenaries to become a saboteur, even as he fools his ISIS “trainers” at first.

Fast forward and he is being interviewed by the CIA (director played by Sanaa Lathan, convincing in a minority-cast role as sufficiently authoritative) and trained by a former seal (Michael Keaton) in various virtual reality settings.  The “ghost” arms dealer (Taylor Kitsch) hardly looks like one.

The film moves around the world, from London to Poland, to Turkey, Romania, and Italy, as Mitch tracks down a parts of a bomb intended for Tel Aviv.  Yes, an underwater nuke can produce a mushroom cloud and destroy a lot of ships in the area.

The real problem right now is that North Korea has more than one nuke, to be sure.  I wonder if any of Flynn’s novels deal with the EMP threat (E1 and E3 are different parts).

Dylan O’Brien’s performance merits note.  Yes, he rather comes across as superman, verging on a comic book hero.  He usually looks clean cut and boyish, with a little wad of chest hair on the beach that survives.  When he tries to look like an ISIS fighter in disguise, he isn’t convincing. In most scenes, despite all the mayhem, his pretty physicality remains intact, very slender, very muscular, as if prepared not for “Dancing with the Stars” but for a big gay disco with all the dirty dancing.  Milo Yiannopoulos would find him admirable (because “thin” is “in”).  Flynn’s writing manages to keep romance and family as a kind of “afterthought” behind the real super-hero, even given Rapp’s earnestness.  But, didn’t that perspective come from James Bond — what it means to be a man.

The film was shot in Thailand. Istanbul, Rome, Malta, and London.

Name:  “American Assassin”
Director, writer:  Michael Cuesta, Vince Flynn
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, weekday PM, small audience
Length:  105
Rating:  R
Companies:  CBS Films, Lionsgate
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

National Geographic Explorer Ep. 3: “Kill List”, “Propaganda Wars”, “Electrotown”

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National Geographic Channel’s “Explorer” series reviews a number of controversial international problems.  Each episode covers about three topics, with a short documentary film and short panel QA.

On Monday. November 28, 2016, the “Episode 3” started with “Kill List”, and examination of how the US government, under the Obama administration, has identified targets (on a “disposition matrix”) for drone assassination in countries housing terrorists (usually Muslim).  Tim Samuels, from London, led the investigation along with Jeremy Scahill.  They visited Islamabad and talked to a cleric who believed he was on such a list, and usually travels without his cell phone, even without the battery, which can be tracked.  Drone attacks are unlikely in major cities but more common in rural areas.  The episode suggested that the drone attacks have about 35% accuracy, down from 80% during the Bush years – with a considerable likelihood of collateral civilian casualties.  Targets are identified by social media and especially by NSA collection of metadata.

The panel discussion offered former CIA director James Woolsey, who was rather blasé about the risk to innocent people.

There have been several fiction films about the ethics of drones: “Eye in the Sky” (2016), “Drone”, “Drones”, and “Good Kill” (2015).

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The second episode was called “Propaganda Wars” which started with the assertion that ISIS is like a media company that kills people.  In 2014, journalists found that a boundary had been crossed indeed (by the public beheadings).  But in Turkey, a few Syrian refugees make comedy videos and code computer games to counter ISIS, and also make forays back into Aleppo to deliver a print newspaper (Enab Baladi ).  I’ve heard Vladimir Putin talk as if control and power were about propaganda and nothing else (when speaking about the gay speech issue in 2013), as if individual speech means nothing to him.

The panel discussion featured Lana Logan, who gave a brief presentation of “Our Fundamental Rights” (as in the spirit of my 1998 booklet, described here ) She said that all other fundamental rights are predicated on the freedom of speech (although that’s #4 on my booklet, link) . She also said that people need free flow of information in order to hold leadership of a country accountable.

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The third segment was called “Electrotown”, Green Bank, W Va, where for ten miles radius cell phone towers and devices are not allowed, to prevent interference with the radio telescope there hunting for alien signals.  People who claim sensitivity to microwaves and cell signals move there and live totally off the grid.  It could become an inviting place for doomsday preppers.

On Dec. 5 there were three more controversial segments.

In a segment called “Wakaliwood“, Director Billie Mintz works in a poor suburb of Kampala, Uganda making B-movies, reflecting violence in Ugandan society, legacy of Idi Amin.

In “Russian Role-Ette: Going Commando“, British journalist Tim Samuels visits some private academies in Russia where young men toughen up and become more manly. Likewise some women go to charm schools. After WWII, where Russia lost so many males, and after decades of women working under communism, more men today are raised by single women. Valdimir Putin wants to strengthen gender roles to increase the Russian birth rate, which helps explain the anti-gay propaganda law of 2013 (“Dispatches”). Samuels participated on a rifle range and in some male hand-to-hand. His hairy body looked soft compared to the laconic Russians.

In “Exploding Bus“, a police academy in Pennsyvlania blows up a bus full of carcasses to simulate an investigation after a hypothetical terror attack.

National Geographic Channel is looking for correspondents.  The website is “Assignment Explorer”.

Wikipedia attribution link for Islamabad Skyline under CCSA 4.0   by Kamranmangrio; link for Aleppo Skyline under CCSA 2.0 by Richard Renwick.

(Posted: Monday, Nov. 28, 2016 at 11:55 PM EST)

“Allied” has the plot of a WWII Hitchcock mystery, and plays on real world identity theft

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Name: Allied
Director, writer:  Robert Zemeckis, Steven Knight
Released:  2016/11/23
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  2016/11/26, Regal Ballston Common, evening, large auditorium, nearly sold out
Length 124
Rating R
Companies: GK, Image Movers, Paramount
Link: official

Allied”, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Steven Knight (the story seems original), has the plot devices of a 1940s Hitchcock thriller, dealing with spies, deception and stolen identities. The movie could also be called “Casablanca II”.

Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, an intelligence officer working in occupied North Africa in 1942, and the opening scene of the film reminds one of “Babel”.  Soon he meets apparent French resistance leader Marianne (Marion Cotillard).  They fall in love.  Marion leads him to a party for the German ambassador, complete with swastika, and Max and Marriane stage a violent attack.

Sometime later they are man and wife in London and have a child.  But British intelligence calls him in one day and confronts him with the theory that his wife is a spy with a fake identity.  Max has married and given his body into sexual passion with what seems to be identity theft, pre-Internet. A complicated ruse follows to discover the truth, and it is not guaranteed to end well.

There is an interesting scene where Marianne is challenge to play a particular piece on a piano in a bar they have broken into.  It’s the piece from “Casalanca” and set to hymn by Hector Berlioz.

While the suspense is quite real and recalls the master director, the setting looks a little hokey.

The plot of this movie starts about the time I was conceived.

(Posted: Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016 at 9:45 AM EST)

 

“True Memoirs of an International Assassin”: a novelist is forced to live out his own “true story”

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Name: True Memoirs of an International Assassin
Director, writer:  Jeff Wadlow
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length 98
Rating PG-13
Companies: Netflix Red Envelope
Link: FB

True Memoirs of an International Assassin”(2016), directed by Jeff Wadlow, presents another layered concept where an “esteemed author’s” writings trigger his own musings in real life.

Ordinary looking  Sam Larson (Kevin James) imagines himself as hit man mason Carver behind the scenes in a coup in Venezuela.  The movie opens with his visualizing violent action scenes, with bodies blown up and the like.  Soon we see him as a wannabe novelist with a desk job, getting rejection slips from traditional publishers, for a novel with the same title as this movie.

One day a woman calls him late at night and offers to meet him in a Starbucks.  He signs a contract to have his novel published as a “true story” online only, as fake news.  It goes viral, and he’s famous quickly, interviewed by Katie Couric (where in one scene it looks like he could vomit on morning television).  He is getting set up to become his own character, “The Ghost”.

He does get asked things like, why doesn’t he live his own life instead of writing about other people’s.  (I get asked the inverse, why don’t I write outside my own narrative?)

Then real life catches up him, as he is kidnapped in his own apartment by a home invasion, and taken to Venezuela, where he is expected to act as a real hit man to assassinate the Venezuelan president (Kim Coates) and then counter-hired to get rid of a political opponent El Toro (Andy Garcia).  The CIA and DEA are involved in what becomes a conventional comic caper. Caracus is said to be the most dangerous city in the world.

In the end, he will write a real novel, “A Ghost in Colombia”.

By Superyessicanovahttp://www.flickr.com/photos/superyessicanova/468649543/, CC BY 2.0, Link

Posted Wednesday. Nov. 23, 2016 at 8:45 AM EST

“Jason Bourne”: a recap of Ludlum’s novels, but also hits the cybersecurity issue hard

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Name: Jason Bourne
Director, writer:  Paul Greengrass (Robert Ludlum)
Released:  2016/7
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  2016/8/14, Regal Ballston Common, small auditorium, sold out, Sunday night
Length 123
Rating PG-13
Companies: Universal, Kennedy-Marshall
Link: official site

Jason Bourne”, now simply the title of the latest movie of the franchise, directed by Paul Greengrass and produced in part by Matt Damon (so can he produce my “Epiphany”), is indeed a concoction of all the clichés from Robert Ludlum’s spy novels.

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But it covers the issue territory well.  We learn that CIA director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, of course) can shut down any power grid in any country he chooses with Stuxtnet-like malware any time it suits the government’s purposes.  That already gives a nod to Ted Koppel’s book “Lights Out” (se Aug. 12).  And this time we learn the entire story of how Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, now all of 45 but still “thmooth” when it fulfills enough fantasies to so be) got into Black Ops (particularly “Treadstone”, which was supposed to stop the civilization-ending terror attacks like EMP), and how the government manipulated nis selective amnesia.

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The movie has enough exotic settings – the most realistic looking is Greece, and the film gives a nod to the debt problems and austerity imposed by the EU (the film was shot well before Brexit).   It touches Rome, and especially Berlin, Germany, the central station areas I roamed in 1999.  Finally, the film winds up with the greatest car chase of all time on the strip of Las Vegas, with enough one-way driving crashes to surely build up a huge fatality count. It missed a chance to over poker tournaments or the technique of card-counting (the movie “21”).

Then there is the Silicon Valley startup, “Deep Dream” founded by Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), although before the final car chase scene and mass shooting at a hotel event, there’s a welcoming that calls for a Jesse Eisenberg by “Now You See Me”.  The speech also pays a nod to Edward Snowden’s concern about privacy and surveillance.

Nicky (Julia Stiles) is the bad girl who does a lot of the hacking, and Heather (Alicia Vikaander) discovers the hack, probably not in time to save the world’s power grids forever.

Much of the film’s incidentals were shot in Tenerife.

(Published: Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 at 11:30 PM EDT)

“The Infiltrator”: Bring back the filmmaking style of the 80s

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Name: The Infiltrator
Director, writer:  Brad Furman, Ellen Brown Furman, Robert Mazur (book)
Released:  2016/07
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, late 2016./7/15, fair audience
Length 127
Rating R
Companies: Broad Green
Link: official site 

The Infiltrator”, directed by Brad Furman, adapted to screen by Ellen Brown Furman and based on the book by the same name by the subject, Robert Mazur (aka Bob Musella), opens in a bar or bowling alley in Tampa FL in 1985, with Mazur’s branding and initiation or “tribunal”, in my parlance, at least.  In a confrontation, his wire shorts out, burning a scar and disfiguring permanently the chakra area of his chest. Yes, some manly hair is gone, for life.  Remember the scene in “Se7en” where Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman shave down before wearing a wire?  I wonder how common this is.

Then we are launched into an 80s-style movie, with slightly overexposed reddish tones in the film stock, and  a sense of old-fashioned tropical heat all the time. The film is not as an intense as Brian de Palma’s “Scarface”, which seems to be a source of homage.

The plot, of course, concerns how Mazur went undercover as Custom’s agent and brought down the US operations of Colombian Medellin drug lord Pablo Escobar.  It’s a little bit conventional and understated, with fewer than the usual number of car chases and crashes.  But the fake wedding at the end (Amy Ryan) makes enough mockery of heterosexual, traditional marriage.

The film has clips of Ronald Reagan’s television moralizing about drugs, and references to Nancy’ “Just Say No”.

The end credits give some history of what would later happen, including a note that the CIA would divert some of this to the Contras under Oliver North.  Is this film a supplement to CNN’s “The Eighties”?

Picture: Tampa, channel, my trip, July 2015

(Posted: Saturday, July 16, 10:15 AM)

“Zero Days”: the history of the Stuxnet worm, and how the blowback just could destroy America

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Name: “Zero Days”
Director, writer:  Alex Gibney
Released:  2016
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2016/7/8, fair audience 7 PM, had played at AFI Docs
Length 114
Rating PG-13
Companies: Participant Media, Magnolia
Link: Site

Zero Days” (or “World War 3.0”) is Alex Gibney’s latest political documentary, and this one comes with a serious warning.

If the U.S. and allies (especially Israel and the UK or “Little England” now) can hack into hostile countries industrial control systems (even for the laudable process of stopping the development of nuclear weapons) they can do it to us.

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The documentary, with lots of interviews, particularly with a translucent female avatar (Joanne Tucker) playing a combined NSA analyst, establishes the case that the U.S. drove the development of the Stuxnet worm during the Bush administration, in order to compromise nuclear-related centrifuges in Iran.  The worm was so well written that it could completely cover its tracks, and it made many “zero day” exploits that could fire off according to parameters (but the same idea is common in ordinary maware  and even mainframe crime, where elevation integrity has been compromised).

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The code was developed at the NSA, and at corresponding facilities in England and especially Israel. The Pentagon put in a “cyber command” in place at the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade (south of Baltimore) with the authority to deploy the cyber weapon.  The CIA was also involved, especially in bridging the “air gap” and getting the malware delivered (possibly on a thumb drive) by an operative when the system (normally offline of the Internet) was being maintained.

In time, some security companies, especially Symantec and then Kaspersky in Moscow, began to see evidence of the worm, which first showed up in Belarus (a former Soviet republic).

Obama continued the process, but the U.S. “got caught”, and Iran retaliated at least twice, once against Saudi Arabian oil companies and once against several US banks in early 2013. But in the meantime, the US has embarked on an even bigger program against Iran’s infrastructure called “Zeus”.

The film warns that a state-sponsored hack could compromise many US industrial systems.  It showed the May 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia, as a false example (because positive train control wasn’t in place there).  It suggested that if the power grids were overloaded or the Internet went down, the world might be like “humpty dumpty”.

An ordinary hacker serving malware, even ransomware, through phishing or drive-by websites could not accomplish this kind of a hack because of the “air gap” to the internet, but an internal operative could probably install the malware.  (Router hacks might become more destructive in the future, especially given the “smart home.”) The main states capable of such hacks would be Iran, North Korea (as we know from the Sony hack) and Russia, and probably China.   Some of this material was covered in Ted Koppel’s book “Light’s Out” (2015).

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The film had been shown at AFIDocs.  It’s possible that it’s release helped prompt the warning from Sinclair Media  (near Baltimore) about cyber attacks and possibly EMP on the power grid.

Wikipedia attribution link for Natanz nuclear facility in Iran, by Hamed Saber, under CCSA 2.0.

(Published, Friday, July 8, 2016 at 11:15 PM EDT)

“Our Kind of Traitor” is rather stereotyped spy stuff

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Name: Our Kind of Traitor
Director, writer:  Susanna White
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  AMC Shirlington, 2016/7/3, evening, nearly sold out
Length 108
Rating R
Companies: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, Film4, StudioCanal, Anton
Link: movie, uk;  book

There’s a problem with spy novels and movies, that the scenarios can quickly become outdated or overrun by current events with new atagonists.

Another problem is the premise, that a random event drags an ordinary person into the world of espionage. Maybe that works in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (especially the second film). But does it work with John La Carre’s (a contemporary of Tom Clancy) “Our Kind of Traitor” (2010), in a new “Roadside Attraction” from director Susanna White?

Peter (Ewan McGregor), a literature professor (emphasizing Dante) in London, is on holiday in Marrakech, Morocco with girl friend Gail (Naomie Harris) when he’s sitting in a bar and is approached by a Russian stranger, Dima (Stellan SKarsgaard).  Dima plays a credit card trick and then invites the couple to a tennis game and a wild party.  Soon, Peter finds himself recruited to take a thumb drive back to England and give it to intelligence.

Peter goes along with it, as Gail questions him, without very good reason. It’s all part of a scheme for Dima, a money launderer, to save himself from other Russian mobsters (an execution, filmed in snowy Finland, opens the film as a prologue).  Part of the deal is to expose another scandal in the British government, with politicians being bribed (and this was filmed well before Brexit).

This sounds like falling for a scam to wire people abroad money when you receive spam saying they are in trouble.  Peter seems like a good candidate for the game, with his intellectual interest in moral issues in literature.

The film goes on the road, to Paris, Bern, and eventually the Alps.  But it still seems a bit like a 60s Cold War spy caper.  There is one scene in France in an apartment complex with very bizarre architecture remind one of Tolkien; I don’t recognize the place.

Wikipedia attribution link for Marrakech picture by Acp, under CCSA 3.0

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Wikipedia attribution link for Finnish landscape (summer, opening scene of movie is near her in winter) near the Russian border, an important location in my own book manuscript “Angel’s Brother” and possible future trouble spot, depending on the behavior of Vladimir Putin, public domain, author, “ThePeter”.

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(Published: Monday, July 4, 2016, at 2:30 PM EDT)

“Central Intelligence”: comedy about potentially serious stuff, to appeal to certain audiences

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Name: “Central Intelligence”
Director, writer:  Rawson Marshall Thurber
Released:  2016/6/17
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Potomac Mills VA AMC, nearly sold out, large auditorium, early evening 2016/6/18
Length 115
Rating R
Companies: New Line, Universal
Link: official site

Central Intelligence” (directed Rawson Marshall Thurber) goes for a rather sick situation comedy rather than real satire, and it’s clear a mass-market mall movie.  Yet, some serious questions come up in the story.

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The film starts with a  1996 prequel in a Maryland high school, just before graduation. Valedictorian Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) is pronounced the star of the class, but just before the ceremony the kids bully the ridiculously flabby kid Bob Stone (played later as an adult by Dwayne Johnson).  Another slender white guy comes in with a perfect body and a centaur’s uniform, and another prank gets played on Stone, and the principal even seems to approve.

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In 2016, Calvin has a humdrum accounting job near the NSA complex, with a recent bride (Danielle Nicollet).  One day, Stone surprises him with a Facebook friend request.  I can think of some friends for whom I’d like that to happen any time now (or at least a Twtter follow). They meet, and the comedy takes off. Stone is now big and buff (the camera suggests he is completely shaved, including head and armpits).  So the idea that a former curmudgeon can become a superhero is born, but the film really trivializes what sounds like a moral precept, something that writers like me are supposed to open up to.

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A scene with automatic weapons in a bar is not what we need now, given Orlando (an unfortunate coincidence with the movie release) but it triggers the comedy, which remains rather slam-bang, crude and violent throughout.  Stone seems to work undercover with the CIA and wants Calvin to unscramble some offshore accounts leading to a super-hacker who will ruin all the US’s encryption secrets and hand them over to Valdimir Putin. But then it gets messy when CIA agents (led by Agent Pamela Harris, Amy Ryan) show up, even at Cavlin’s home (where Stone has crashed). Now the real-life CIA isn’t supposed to do domestic stuff with Americans, unless, maybe, the Americans are extraterrestrials in clever disguise.

The movie goes up to Boston (the “Commons”) for a climatic showdown (the entire film was shot in Massachusetts).  But it ends with a high school reunion (I missed mine, mostly), and the white centaur himself has developed a pot belly and oafish chest hair as he approaches 40.

Why did it take both New Line (Warner Brothers) and Universal to get this film done?

(Published: Saturday, June 18, 2016 at 11:30 PM EDT)