Friday, September 18, 2015

*True Crime Update: Black Mass & The Departed

While Johnny Depp's portrayal of Whitey Bulger in Black Mass generates Oscar buzz, F2F recalls another film that parallels this true crime story (the entry was originally posted 07/2011).

Jack Nicholson's real-life inspiration for Frank Costello (the mobster he played in The Departed ) was arrested in Santa Monica, California in June, 2011.  James "Whitey" Bulger, a notorious crime boss and former FBI informant for three decades, went into hiding for several years after his deal with the Feds unraveled.   The film's plot centers on a Boston police officer (Leonardo DiCaprio) going undercover to arrest Costello. At the same time, Costello's planted an insider (Matt Damon) within the police force for personal gain. Both men are trying to rat out the other. In real life, Damon's character was based on FBI Agent John Connolly, who tipped off Bulger for years to avoid arrest.  Billy Costigan, played by DiCaprio is based on a New England State Trooper who joined Bulger's gang. The film's technical advisor, Thomas Duffy, was a former detective assigned to investigate the Bulger's crime syndicate.  So if the film feels authentic, it is!

"Whitey" Bulger was ranked in the top ten on the F.B.I's Most Wanted List, and linked to several murders.  At the time of his arrest he was found with over $800,000 in cash and 30 guns. The charges against him include racketeering, possession of firearms, conspiracy, and money laundering.  Former partners of Bulger have testified that he made payoffs to two dozen Boston police officers and half a dozen F.B.I. agents.   John Connolly was convicted for his ties to the crime syndicate, but several other shady characters never faced trial.  Despite the fact vs. fiction similarities, The Departed ends much differently than the real-life saga (*Spoiler alert*). Frank Costello meets an untimely end as opposed to Bulger who eluded authorities for almost 16 years. During that time, Bulger reportedly saw a screening of the film.

Since his capture, there's been increased interest in movie location tours in Boston, where some of the filming occurred and Bulger hung out with his mob cronies.

The Departed won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker known for his realistic depictions of crime and urban life (see the F2F segment on Taxi Driver).

Read more about Bulger's arrest here
Other Boston-area crime sagas:

Mystic River
The Town
The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Tuesday, September 8, 2015


Buzz Aldrin
“We have to go to Mars, and this his how we do it,” Buzz Aldrin said with intensity, his eyes boring into me, riveting me to my chair.  I was interviewing the 2nd man to walk on the Moon for a "Star Trek" television special.  We wanted a reaction from NASA astronauts on the impact of the famous sci-fi series on our culture.  Mr. Aldrin graciously offered a few choice comments for us.  But he was more eager to explain his Mars plan, and spent 20 minutes on camera doing so.  He convinced me it could happen in our lifetime.  Back then, I thought he was a little off his rocker. But today, it's no joke.  Serious plans are in the works.  In an August 2015  U.S. News report, Aldrin announced that he's joining the Florida Institute of Technology to develop a 'master plan' for colonizing Mars in less than 25 years. 

Over a dozen films have imagined a trip to Mars, and some with real scientific theories embedded in the storyline.  But nothing compares to The Martian, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott.  NASA was on board to provide facts about space travel, ultimately contributing 50 pages of script material.  Also, the flight mirrors many aspects of actual planned missions.  Jessica Chastain met with real astronauts and various personnel from JPL in preparation for her role as a female space traveler.   Andy Weir, who wrote the book the film is based on, spent serious research time watching space documentaries and scouring the Internet for information.  The plot deals with a marooned astronaut (Damon) determined to survive Mar's harsh environmental conditions.  He must find ways to grow food, find water, and withstand one calamity after another.   Weir admits that some plot points were not accurate, including depicting an intense sandstorm that wreaks havoc on the stranded astronaut's habitat.  Based on inertia in the atmosphere, “even a 150-km-an-hour sandstorm on Mars would feel like a one-mile-per-hour breeze on Earth,” Weir said. “But this is a man versus nature story, and I wanted nature to get the first punch in.”  Planetary scientist Dr. Jim Green praised Ridley Scott on his attention to detail. “He wanted to make it realistic and I've appreciated pulling together teams of people and answering questions that he asked," said Green. "And the more that happened, the more I got excited about that, because the film does indeed look very realistic. It has a lot of real elements on it and that's appreciated from a NASA perspective.”  As a marketing strategy for The Martian, Neil deGrasse Tyson devoted a special episode of his program Space Talk on Mars, exploring the potential dangers of visiting the planet (cosmic radiation, solar flares, etc.).

Mars One colony depiction

In recent years, Mars has become a hot news topic.  Mars One, a non-profit organization, vows to create a manned colony on the planet, and volunteers have signed up for a one-way ticket to the Red Planet, beginning in 2026.  In a 2010 speech, President Barak Obama said, "By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it."   Hopeful words indeed.

Dark narrow streaks indicate water flowing on Mars

And on September 28th, NASA reported that they've discovered evidence of water on Mars.
“It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future.”   This is an amazing news story for two reasons.  One, water equals potential life on the Red Planet. Two, this comes --mysteriously -- days before the release of The Martian, which may be a sneaky public relations ploy (was NASA holding out until the movie came out in hopes of riding on its marketing heels?).  Then again, this may prove problematic for the film, since its story premise depends on the absence of water. 

Other films featuring Mars:

Red Planet
Total Recall
Mission to Mars

Monday, July 27, 2015


Believe it or not, Sherlock Holmes continues to receive mail at 221b Baker Street, London—as if he were a real person! That’s how strong a hold the great inspector has on pop culture. No doubt films like Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellen, and  Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr. helped keep his popularity alive. And if one wants to play detective, they can find plenty of fascinating truths surrounding this super sleuth.

For instance, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle credits real life medical lecturer Dr. Joseph Bell for inspiring the character of Holmes.
“You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it,” Conan Doyle said of Bell.
Bell was a master of keen observation, logic and expert diagnosis. He also helped to pioneer the use of forensics. Plus, Bell was adept at deducing the occupation and key details of perfect strangers, which Conan Doyle discovered while working with the doctor at the University of Edinburgh.
As for the motion pictures, Mr. Holmes imagines that Sherlock actually lived and Mr. Watson wrote the books (blurring the lines between fact and fiction).  For Sherlock Holmes, director Guy Ritchie and his creative team relied on solid factual material to establish a plausible period, circa 1890’s London. For example: history points to more than one “secret society” (like the film’s Temple of the Four Orders) strongly tied to government and politics. In fact, filming took place at the real Freemason’s Hall --home to a powerful sect often charged with seeking world domination by conspiracy theorists.
Also credible for the time was the use of cyanide as a weapon, albeit with the right diabolical mind behind it (in 1854, a British chemist advocated the use of a cyanide weapon during the Crimea War; in 1887; the New York Times attributed the death of several horses to cyanide poisoning; a few years later a group of Russian nobles tried to kill famed mystic Rasputin using cyanide). The use of guns and artillery appears accurate for the time, although Holme’s attempt to create a gun with a silencer would not be realized until around 1909.
It’s also interesting to note that both films dismiss the trademark deerstalker cap and curved pipe, which were never in the books (the curved pipe used by an actor so as not to hide his face).   The younger sleuth's use of hand-to-hand combat can be traced to the novels. The Sign of Four portrays Holmes as an expert boxer and in The Final Problem, Sherlock draws upon his martial arts prowess to defeat his arch enemy Professor Moriarty. In real life, actor Robert Downey Jr. had studied Wing Chun Kung Fu for over 6 years and Ritchie practices jujitsu. The two men combined their love of these martial art forms to create a distinctive style of fighting seen in the film.

A huge casebook of fascinating facts can be unearthed on Holmes. But suffice it to say history will forever note this detective’s enormous influence on modern day crime investigation practices. Although in their infancy at the time Conan Doyle was writing, Sherlock’s trademark techniques – from forensic science to collecting trace evidence to ballistics and beyond—have now become reality. Elementary? Not hardly, Watson.
Notable Sherlock Holmes films:

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Heads Up!

Dr. Canavero
No one would think for a minute that a film entitled The Thing with Two Heads would warrant a spot on this website.  But then comes the news that an Italian neurosurgeon is attempting a real head transplant. I quickly scour films dealing with this subject. And what pops up first: a cheesy cult B-movie featuring Ray Milland and former Los Angeles Rams football star Rosey Grier. The plot deals with a dying surgeon attempting to graft his noggin onto another human, and the only willing victim is a black inmate on death row (Grier). No more needs to be mentioned about the film, other than it exemplifies Mankind's age-old curiosity to create or sustain life  via organ harvesting (i.e Frankenstein).  Upon further research, I found other films dealing with the head transplant subject, including Robocop, The Brain That Wouldn't Die, The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (with Bruce Dern), and X-Files I Want to Believe, directed by X-Files creator Chris Carter.  F.B.I. agents Muldar and Scully uncover a plot by a corrupt medical team to abduct people and harvest their organs. The end game is to graft a human head onto a dying Russian man.  So could this possibly happen in real life? Another Russian thinks so.  30-year old scientist Valery Spiridonov aims to be the first person to have a human head transplanted onto another body.  He's enlisted Dr. Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group to attempt the task -- which could take 100 surgeons and 36 hours to complete.  Canavero will attempt a risky spinal cord fusion procedure, which requires an ultra-sharp blade to limit damage to the severed spinal components.  If all goes well, Spiridonov, bound to a wheel-chair due to a degenerative muscle disease, could be walking within a year.   Skeptics think the procedure could result in paralysis, rejection without the proper immunosuppressant drugs, and medical advances that don't yet exist.
Valery Spiridonov

     Upon further research, F2F found out that in the 1970's doctors transplanted the head of monkey, which survived for 9 days.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

American Sniper

Sometimes the real impact of movies on society and our culture appear in relevant stories that would ordinarily find themselves buried in the back pages of newspapers.  For instance, two days after the 2015 Oscars ceremony, several media outlets, including The New York Times, reported that a jury found Eddie Ray Routh guilty of killing Chris Kyle, sentencing him to life imprisonment.  Perhaps if American Sniper--which chronicled Kyle's life as a Navy SEAL sharpshooter-- had not racked up several award nominations, that story would have not received much attention.  The trial rankled defense lawyers, since several potential jury members may have seen the film, thus tainting their opinions. The film ends with subtitles stating that "Kyle was shot by a veteran he was trying to help." 
"Sniper" also stirred controversy for its alleged glorification of war.  Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted that 'snipers were cowards', while Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin supported the film. 
As for historical accuracy, the film took liberties in some areas while the production team and cast took great pains to realistically portray the legendary sniper's life. Critics have pointed out that the memoir which the film is based on (American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History), doesn't depict Kyle targeting an armed child, and also includes fictitious characters.  In contrast, actor Bradley Cooper reveals that he spoke with Kyle before his death, studied footage of the marksman, gained 40 pounds, and went through vigorous sniper training with a Navy SEAL.  At one point, Kyle's family and friends admitted doing double takes watching Cooper because of his close resemblance to Chris.
Chris Kyle
Bradley Cooper

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Real Life 2014

Every year, there's a significant number of films released based on real people and events.  A lot of them find themselves in Oscar contention and win numerous awards. 2014 is no different.
Here's a list:

The Imitation Game
American Sniper 
The Theory of Everything
Kill the Messenger
Jersey Boys
The Good Lie
Mr. Turner
Get On Up
Million Dollar Arm
Heaven is For Real
When the Game Stands Tall
Jimmy P.

Film2Fact will update this list and profile select movies soon.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


"It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species”--Stephen Hawking.

What happens when Hollywood visual effects wizards brainstorm with a legendary physics wiz? Well, in the case of Interstellar , the result is a groundbreaking new look at our universe. Director Christopher Nolan (Inception reviewed by F2F) and famed scientist Kip Thorne wanted a realistic representation of how black holes and wormholes behave, requiring complex computer models (that ate up hundreds of hours of rendering time). Thorne delivered a slew of  theoretical equations to the Vis FX team at Double Negative, who transformed them into accurate computer simulations.    Subsequently, the images became valuable new tools for physicists to study.  Thorne also wrote two new scientific papers: one for the astrophysics community and one for the computer graphics community.  Fiction assisted fact and vice versa. 
Nolan (left)  and Thorne (right) discuss big science ideas
Thorne's depiction of how black hole distorts light
What's interesting is how Nolan, screenwriter brother Johnathon Nolan, the production team, and the actors went to great lengths to present a realistic depiction of how NASA might tackle a way to save a dying Earth. The actors gained insight from real astronauts. In particular, Anne Hathaway (an admitted science nerd) conferred with retired astronaut Marsha Ivens, who completed five missions and logged over a thousand hours in orbit, delivering supplies to the Russian Mir station and the International Space Station.  Michael Caine (who plays Professor Brand) was asked to model his character on Kip Thorne. Also, since the plot involves blight and dust storms plaguing Earth, director Nolan got permission from famed documentarian Ken Burns to include interviews with actual Dust Bowl survivors in the movie.  The production team also mimiced real dust storms of the 1930's that blew through farmlands, caused by severe drought.
Dust storm circa 1935

But the crux of the saga depends on viewers to believe Mankind might find salvation through incredibly lengthy journeys through a wormhole  --shortcuts to other galaxies-- that stem from Einstein's theory of relativity.  Some critics believe it would be impossible for humans to travel through them if they existed.  F2F wanted to learn more and discovered several websites that attempt to explain much of this science behind the fiction. But quite frankly, we don't have Phd's, so we'll reference a neat video here (thanks to ) and another site here.

Black Hole in Interstellar
Side note: Wormholes appear in other sci-fi films and TV fare, most notably "Star Trek". (F2F's author once interviewed science consultant Andre Bormanis about wormholes and other space phenomena for special documentaries available on DVD releases of Star Trek: Voyager). 
Wormhole in Interstellar

Other films featuring wormholes and black holes:
The Avengers
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The Black Hole

More info on Interstellar here and here.