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1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Breezy, lightweight recreation of famed dust-up between tennis icon and washed-up former champion, 8 October 2017

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who brought us the insufferable "Little Miss Sunshine," are on more solid ground in their historical recreation of the famed "Battle of the Sexes" 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

Emma Stone and Steve Carrell, who play the principals, bear a close resemblance to their true-life counterparts and Dayton and Faris do very well in recreating the look of the era replete with nifty motor vehicles, the white, non-descript titles seen on TV screens during sports broadcasts and the fashions of the day (including the colorful outfits designed for the tennis players).

Carrell as Bobby Riggs proves to be a tad bit more interesting in his part as the washed-up, middle-aged former champion who is also an unrepentant gambler. Carrell humanizes the character by emphasizing his good nature coupled with the lack of discipline. Indeed it's his gambling that leads his wife to throw him out of the house, only to later take him back after the match.

Emma Stone is less interesting as Billie King Jean, as her part drifts dangerously close to hagiography. Her burgeoning homosexuality, illustrated by her relationship with Marilyn Barnett, the hairdresser who services the players on the woman's tour, proves to be an unexciting affair at best. More egregious is the fact that the films' scenarists left out the fact that later in 1981, Barnett sued Billie Jean for her share of "galimony"—a gambit which ultimately proved unsuccessful.

Stone does have her moments however, in her confrontation with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the male chauvinist head of the tennis association which leads Billie Jean to defect and form her own league of female tennis professionals.

According to a number of articles I've read, Battle of the Sexes pretty much follows what happened historically; however, the chronology of some of the events appears to be altered in order to make the narrative flow a bit smoother.

One thing I was unaware of was that Riggs played the woman's champion, Margaret Court, before taking on Billie Jean, in an exhibition match in which he beat her. Court (played by a steely Jessica McNamee) is nicely contrasted with King as she was conservative and didn't approve of King's gay predilections or homosexuality in general.

Ultimately the big match between King and Riggs takes on a life of its own and becomes a feel-good paean for woman's rights. Certainly King's fight to obtain financial parity with the male athletes was noble but the actual match itself only proved that middle-aged men are no longer in the bloom of youth.

Battle of the Sexes is pretty much a lightweight affair but enjoyable as it entertains, just as the original confrontation did between a tennis icon and washed-up former champion.

It (2017/I)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
King's entertaining pre-pubescent "losers club" undermined by repetitious clown antagonist and clichéd horror plot, 1 October 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Set in the late 80s, Director Andy Muschietti's second adaptation of a Stephen King novel (the first one was a 1990 TV mini-series), takes place in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. What keeps the film from drifting too far ashore as mediocre pabulum (or worse—a series of one clichéd horror film trope after another), is the hard-edged Stephen King worldview and his engaging characters (despite their one-dimensionality).

Right away King treats us to an event straight out of a lurid, small-town newspaper headline: the disappearance (and ultimate murder) of a young boy, who is dragged into a sewer by King's monster (who we'll get to in a few moments). The sense of dread is palpable throughout the narrative, with the suggestion that the town has been cursed since the last century (pictures of a mill explosion in 1908 that claimed the lives of over 100 children, permeate an old book chronicling the town's history and brought to our attention by one of the protagonists who King adroitly assembles in this coming-of-age tale).

Indeed, King's motley collection of outsiders (pre-pubescents aptly self-named "the loser's club"), each possess a particular handicap that allows them to be subjected to bullying by a small group of bad kids in town, emotional smothering and worse (including sexual abuse) by the adults in the community.

The de facto "leader" of the group is Bill, a stutterer who blames himself for the disappearance of his younger brother George (the young boy dragged into the sewer at the film's beginning); Ben, a short, overweight bookworm who is dubbed "tits" by the town bullies I'm subject him to a savage beating; the over talkative Richie, whose foul-mouth continually gets him into trouble; Eddie, a hypochondriac, who is continually subjected to the aforementioned emotional smothering by an overbearing mother; Stan, the Jewish germ phobic, son of the town's rabbi and Mike, an African-American kid who gets little or no support from his strict granddad; and the group's only female member, Bev, who is subjected to apparent sexual abuse by her leering, creepy Dad.

Beyond these entertaining characters and their human antagonists (including the effective psychopathic kid, Henry Bowers, who ends up murdering his violent, abusive police officer dad, and Alvin Marsh, Bev's depraved father), Stephen King has little elsewhere to go in developing his principal antagonist as well as offering an effective plot.

The principal antagonist of course is Pennywise the clown, the "It" of the film's title, and proves to be hardly believable or scary. That's because once he engages in his "scare routines," they become perfunctory and repetitious. By the time he receives his comeuppance at film's end, we hardly care whether he comes or goes. Not only that, Pennywise's powers have no basis in reality which might be good for teenagers but hardly for more critical adults.

A long-winded explanation of the film's plot is completely unnecessary; suffice it to say, that the "loser's club" does battle with the clown in a haunted house (on two occasions), and finally end up victorious. They accomplish this by realizing that the clown draws its energy from their own fears, and once they're able to rise above those fears, the clown no longer has any hold over them.

The subtext underneath King's nasty fairy tale is that the bullied victims in our society may rise up and defeat the forces of evil if they join together and believe in themselves— not allowing their assorted so-called handicaps to undermine their self-confidence. King's good triumphing over evil reveals a rather simplistic weltanschauung but an appealing one to the masses who purchase tickets in droves, and who demand a resolution with few shades of gray.

Little character development but great acting and intriguing plot highlight suspenseful mission against terrorists, 29 September 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The three elements necessary for a good picture are a good plot, excellent acting and notable character development. Even if one of those elements is missing, a film can still garner quite respectable ratings. This is the case with Gavin Hood's thriller, Eye in the Sky, which I liken to Hitchcock's Rear Window in that most of the exciting action is viewed from a distance by the protagonists.

A multinational force consisting primarily of Brits and Americans are one step ahead of a bunch of Al-Shabaab terrorists who are plotting another one of their nasty deeds in a safe house in Nairobi, Kenya. The action outside the compound is captured by a telescopic surveillance camera inside a drone which surreptitiously hovers over the bad guys high above in the atmosphere.

The principal good guy is British Army Colonel Katherine Powell played by the magisterial, tough-as-nails thespian, Helen Mirren, who is bent on capturing a British national turned terrorist who is the significant other of one of the Al-Shabaab miscreants. Powell ends up depending on undercover Kenyan field agent Jama Farah (played by the reliable Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips fame) who employs two wonderful miniature surveillance drones in the form of a hummingbird and what appears to be some kind of flying insect.

When Farah's "insectothopter" confirms that the terrorists are about to launch a suicide mission replete with suicide vests strapped to the bodies of their agents, Powell realizes this is no longer a "capture" mission but now decidedly one to "kill." In charge of the missile attached to the drone are US Air Force soldiers located at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

Right before the USAF team is about to blow the terrorists to kingdom come, a young girl sets up a small stall selling loaves of bread right outside the compound. A debate then ensues between Powell and some of the civilian government officials in the room as to whether they can legally launch the attack since the probability of the girl being killed is high.

The late Alan Rickman (in his final role) is excellent as Lieutenant General Frank Benson who must contend with the warring factions who disagree completely as to whether the strike should be launched. It's almost comical in the way the buck is passed from one higher up to another including the British foreign secretary and the US Secretary of State (the contrast between the British and the Americans is quite clear with the Americans taking an aggressive posture toward dealing with the terrorists).

Powell finally asks Sergeant Mushtaq Saddiq (Babou Ceesay), the Risk Assessment Officer, to fudge the statistics and give her an under 50% probability rating that the girl won't be killed. He reluctantly gives her the figures that she wants and they go ahead with the strike.

SPOILERS AHEAD: In a realistic no-so-happy ending, the girl is killed along with the all the terrorists in the compound.

In addition to the visuals of the terrorists observed from afar, there is some exciting footage of the Kenyan field agent, running from the terrorists after his cover is blown and then attempting to save the young girl by having another child buy the last of her bread so that she'll leave the area.

Eye in the Sky has the two of the aforementioned three elements I alluded to before: excellent acting and a nifty plot which will keep you glued to your seat. There isn't much time for anything more so the characters (including Mirren's Powell) have virtually no back story and are not really fleshed out as multi-dimensional human beings. Still, this is a film which should definitely be on your list to see soon.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Excellent production design is not enough to save convoluted plot involving ho-hum magic world derring-do, 16 September 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is J.K. Rowling's first screenplay. Rowling's tale is a prequel to her Harry Potter franchise neatly set in a Roaring Twenties New York City. The production design is probably the best thing about the film and for those (like myself) who yearn for such nostalgic enterprises, one can remain glued to the screen until the film's climax, despite the limitations of a paltry script.

In truth, Fantastic Beasts probably could have used a better appellation such as "Much Ado about Nothing." Until the convoluted plot kicks in, Rowling serves up a decent enough protagonist in the form of author/researcher/ magizoologist Newt Scamander (winningly played by Eddie Redmayne). He carries around a beat up briefcase which is a portal to a magical world filled with the aforementioned beasts.

When the so-called fantastic creatures start escaping, Newt falls afoul of the Magic Congress of the United States (aka MACUSA), who have strict rules about non-magic people knowing about their secret world. A defrocked enforcer, a witch by the name of Tina Goldstein (played by Katherine Waterson, in a part where there's little to do) tries to rehabilitate her position by bringing Newt in to answer to the Congress for violating their rules. Only problem is that his briefcase was inadvertently switched in an encounter with an ex-factory worker, the "No-Maj" Jacob Kowalski and Newt is unceremoniously released.

Kowalski is the comic relief here and Rowling has some fun in contrasting the sophisticated Newt with the unkempt American. There is a rather good scene where Kowalski interacts with Newt's beasts after falling into the briefcase and emerging inside the magizoologist's world of wonders.

Rowling gets into trouble by introducing too many antagonists and by the denouement we're thoroughly confused as to who we should be mainly rooting against. First there's Mary Lou Barebone, a no-Maj crusader against the magic world, who is reminiscent of the Temperance League fanatics from the Prohibition era. Barebone's main claim to fame is she's the abusive mother of Credence, a problematic teen who we'll get to in a minute.

Worse is MACUSA's Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves, who blames one of Newt's creatures for killing prominent senator Henry Shaw Jr. Before you know it, Graves accuses Newt and Tina of conspiring with the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (another one of Rowling's antagonists who shows up much later), and the unlikely couple are sentenced to death. I'm not sure why Graves is so sinister but I suppose Rowling needs such a character to root against as a representative of rabid intolerance. No need to explain how Tina and Newt escape but suffice it to say, they do!

Things get more convoluted when we find out that Credence is the host of an Obscurus, some kind destructive energy creature that wreaks havoc on New York City. When the MACUSA enforcers show up, they're forced to kill Credence as he's the host of the uncontrollable Obscurus. Newt somehow reveals that Graves is actually Grindelwald, who ends up arrested by MAGUSA, not before surprisingly objecting to their non- fraternization policy between Maj and Non-Majers.

I couldn't help being reminded of the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the Good Witch Glenda puts everyone to sleep in the poppy field and a similar sequence of events happens here. With the Obscurus revealing its power to ordinary folk, Newt enlists one of his creatures to fly throughout the city, dropping a magic potion on all the inhabitants, erasing their memories and ensuring that the secret magical world will continue to remain incognito.

Fantastic Beasts features some whimsical, romantic scenes between Tina's sister, Queenie, a telepath who falls for Kowalski, who ends up (with Newt's help) in opening up his own bakery store. Much more disappointing are the fantastic beasts themselves--seen in similar incarnations, in fantasy films, of the last few decades.

Maybe it's a question of a lack of true stakes here or simply Rowling's inability to bring her tale to a fitful and truly exciting conclusion. See the 'Beasts' for the visuals and don't focus too much on the plot.

Beach Rats (2017)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Brooklyn teenage sad sack, confused over his sexual identity, hardly makes for compelling drama, 3 September 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Another highly touted film at the Sundance Festival, Beach Rats also garnered quite a bit of enthusiastic accolades from mainstream critics. But why? As usual, second feature director Eliza Hittman manages to proffer up a visually impressive palette evoking the heady atmosphere of lower middle-class Brooklyn and one particular young man confused about his sexual identity.

The protagonist is Frankie played with subdued intensity by Harris Dickinson. He lives with his mother and teenage sister during a high time of family stress (the father is uncommunicative in a hospital bed, dying of cancer). Frankie's mother wants to know why he comes home so late and the sister resents his being constantly overprotective.

Frankie has a bunch of friends he hangs out with—the so-called "Beach Rats." I'm not sure why the film has such a title—since the aforementioned "rats" are all underdeveloped characters (stereotypes if you will), who we learn little about during the film. What's more Frankie doesn't fit in with this group and they are only truly integrated into the plot during the film's climax.

Hittman makes the mistake of many neophyte writers when she assumes that a sad sack like Frankie is a) an interesting character and b) makes for good drama. She's wrong on both counts: simply put, compelling cinematic characters have an ego—in other words, they like themselves (think of the cool narcissism of the characters in the Sopranos).

Frankie, on the other hand, is an angry, unlikable character who spends most of his evenings trolling through gay chat rooms and experiencing unfulfilled sexual encounters with an assortment of (mostly older) gay men. Hittman doesn't want us to identify with her protagonist but rather "feel his angst," which she blames on his sad home life (the death of his father contributes to Frankie's instability a third way through the narrative).

How do we know Hittman disapproves of Frankie's lifestyle?—the ending clues us in: Frankie's plan to smoke some marijuana with his friends goes awry after the "Beach Rats" rob and assault one of Frankie's pick-ups, implicating all of them as criminals.

The story would have been a lot more interesting if Frankie simply had a better opinion of himself and wasn't simply confused about his sexuality. With his one-note obsession about sex, Frankie doesn't have an internal arc where he grows at all. Ultimately Frankie's machinations are boring as there's little notable change in the character's development.

Earlier on, Frankie does struggle in his relationship with a young woman, Simone, played by the attractive Madeline Weinstein. Hittman does her best work in conveying the tension between the troubled couple. Nonetheless, Simone is another one dimensional character, simply designed to play off the confused Frankie.

In the end, Beach Rats is no "Nights of Cabiria," which is probably what the director intended. Instead, we're stuck with the usual melodramatic characters and stock situations. Angst in itself is hardly the answer for good, compelling drama.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Uneasy mix of comic non-sequiturs and violent noir proves tiresome, 25 August 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Set in 1977 Los Angeles, The Nice Guys stars a rather bloated and unkempt looking Russell Crowe as Jackson Healey, a tough enforcer who plays opposite Ryan Gosling as Holland March, an alcoholic private detective. March is hired by an old lady, Mrs. Glenn, who insists she saw her porn actress niece Misty, through the window of an apartment, despite the fact that Misty was killed in a car accident two days before. March gets on the trail of a mysterious young female, Amelia, who might be involved in Misty's disappearance. Healey is hired by Amelia to prevent March from finding her so he goes over to his house and beats him up.

After Healey and March's initial dust-up, Healey is attacked by two thugs who are looking for Amelia. After fending them off, Healey joins forces with March to look for the missing instigator. While The Nice Guys is designed as a gritty film noir, it also unhappily features the comic machinations of the two principals whose dialogue is loaded with a series of non-sequiturs. If this is your cup of tea, then you'lli probably like The Nice Guys but I found Crowe and Gosling's comic interplay to be repetitious and grating.

The rest of The Nice Guys plot is a bit convoluted to say the least. March, while in an alcoholic stupor, takes a pratfall over the railing in the back of a mansion where a party is going on, and ends up finding the corpse of Sid Shattuck, a porn producer who was involved with Amelia. Meanwhile, March's 12 year old daughter, Holly, is kidnapped by "Blue Face," one of the two thugs who attempted to kill Healey earlier. Holly prevents Blue Face from killing Amelia while inside the car and manages to escape and flee with Amelia. Surprisingly Blue Face is seriously injured by a hit and run driver. Before strangling him to death, Blue Face tells Healey that a notorious hit man, John Boy, has been hired to take out Amelia.

Also in the mix is Amelia's mother Judith (Kim Bassinger), a high- ranking Justice Department official who describes her daughter as unstable to both Healey and March. When the intrepid investigators bring Amelia back to March's house, they can't decide whether her tale of Detroit automaker collusion attempting to circumvent auto exhaust emission standards and her mother's involvement with them is true or whether Amelia is simply a spoiled brat with grand conspiracy theories. The ranting Amelia proves to be one of the more interesting characters in the film with a personality that appears to represent a satire on the over the top, leftist anti-government young people of today.

In addition to Crowe and Gosling's failed comedy routine, The Nice Guys takes an even further turn for the worse by confirming Amelia's story that her mother Judith indeed colluded with the Detroit automakers. Judith sends her assistant, Tally, to divert Healey and March by giving them a briefcase to deliver that is supposedly filled with $100,000 cash, but actually contains shredded magazines. Meanwhile, in the most unpleasant scene in the movie, John Boy ends up killing Amelia.

Healey and March finally figure out that the near-sighted Mrs. Glenn actually saw her niece in a movie that was being projected inside that apartment. It turns out that Amelia spliced in evidence of the Detroit automakers collusion into a film scheduled to be projected at the Los Angeles Auto Show. It's there that Healey and March engage in a wild shootout with the bad guys, one of whom dies and the other two apprehended.

The Nice Guys disappoints grandly with the stereotyped depiction of Judith, the scheming Justice Department official, who is willing to sacrifice her daughter for the good of the American economy. I don't buy it in the least and you shouldn't either.

With its uneasy mix of comedy and noir realism, The Nice Guys ends up trying to have it both ways. The killing of Amelia undercuts the comedy by introducing a tragic element too overbearing for a seemingly light-heartedly designed vehicle.

4 out of 63 people found the following review useful:
A fitting tribute to Righteous Gentiles but how much of it is really true?, 13 August 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Director Niki Caro's "The Zookeeper's Wife" is a fitting tribute to two "Righteous Gentiles," Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife, Antonina (Jessica Chastain), who were the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo just prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland, and responsible for saving the lives of approximately 300 Jews by ferreting them out of the Warsaw ghetto where they were imprisoned under atrocious conditions.

While the film works as a "tribute," it's not as successful as a dramatic work, since a fair number of scenes had to be invented out of whole cloth in order to move the story along to a fitful conclusion. Nonetheless, this little-known story holds our interest basically to the very end, and is an important piece of history that all students of the Holocaust should take note of.

The story is unusual as the main setting of the narrative is a zoo. The opening scene is particularly strong, chronicling Antonina Żabiński's love for animals as she saves a baby elephant from choking after the poor animal gets a small piece of a tree branch stuck in her trunk (all this in front of dinner guests who marvel at her acumen with the animals).

Soon afterward the Nazis invade Poland and there are more striking scenes of animals killed during the bombardment and some escaping, roaming the streets as the hapless citizenry must avoid coming into contact with dangerous, wild animals, on the loose.

The villain of the piece is Dr. Lutz Heck (an excellent Daniel Brühl), the Nazi zoologist who actually was a friend and colleague of the Żabińskis before the war. Heck proposes to save all the larger "prize" animals and bring them back to Germany as a "loan," where he plans to continue with crazy breeding experiments to resurrect an extinct bison species. After the Żabińskis agree to Heck's plan, they're dismayed when he returns to the zoo with a group of soldier thugs, and begins shooting the remaining animals, as he argues they won't be able to survive in the cold.

The Żabińskis come up with a plan of their own, convincing Heck to run a pig farm which could provide pig meat to German troops. This becomes a pretext to gain access to the ghetto, where they pick up garbage in a truck and bring it back as food scraps to feed the pigs. The scenes where they hide Jews from the Ghetto underneath the garbage intended for the pigs inside the truck, don't ring true, as the Nazis were much more meticulous in searching vehicles that left the ghetto on a daily basis.

It was Jan's association with the shady Ziegler, head of the Arbeitsamt (labor office), that enabled him to sneak various Jews out of the ghetto. Ziegler, an amateur entomologist, learned of an insect collection that the Żabińskis were holding for a Jewish friend. In exchange for seeing the collection and "taking care of it," Jan was able to obtain the document that allowed him to pass freely, in and out of the ghetto.

The narrative slows down considerably in the scenes where the Żabińskis are caring for the various Jewish people hidden in the abandoned animal cages and underground passageways at the zoo. One invented character, Urzsula, a young girl who has been repeatedly raped by Nazi guards in the ghetto, is trotted out as a symbol of Jewish suffering and lends little to the dramatic urgency of the story. More ludicrous is the graffiti left on the walls by the Jews signifying their hope and despair —of course none of that would be allowed by the Żabińskis, as any hint that they were hiding Jews could have led to their subsequent imprisonment and execution.

While I understand the film scenarists did not want to get bogged down with ancillary stories in regards to Holocaust chronology, I still was taken aback that there was no mention of the Jewish revolt in the Warsaw ghetto. Instead, that's skipped entirely, and we fast forward to the "liquidation" of the ghetto by the Nazis. And I understand the importance of brevity in a screenplay, but the lack of mention of one of the most significant events of Holocaust history is clearly unsettling.

Finally, the conclusion of The Zookeeper's Wife simply feels forced. For starters there's Heck's infatuation with Antonina and the attempted rape scene that never happened. Jan's purported jealousy also feels forced and unlikely. In reality, Heck left the scene much earlier than the time Nazis finally left Poland (and of course never pretended to shoot Antonina's son—that actually occurred but at the hands of an unrelated German soldier).

The dramatic scene where Antonina rushes back to warn the Jews and helps them escape, also never happened. The last contingent of Jews hidden by the Żabińskis left before the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. Since Jan was in the resistance, he realized that their villa was no longer a safe place to hide refugees.

Both Chastain and Heldenbergh are solid as the noble Żabińskis, with Heidnebergh hitting the mark as a strong, laid back man of science and resistance fighter along with Chastain, whose love for people and animals is most convincingly conveyed.

The Zookeeper's Wife is a fascinating story better told through Antonina's original memoirs. Some verisimilitude is simply lost in the attempt to make the story more dramatic than it actually was. Nonetheless, despite its limitations, this is a film still worth seeing, due to the brave subjects it honors.

Dunkirk (2017)
6 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Standard action scenes predominate over character development as Nolan views rescue at Dunkirk as more tragic than uplifting, 4 August 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I haven't seen the original "Dunkirk" film which came out in 1958, but of what I know of that plot the main focus is on a British troop's battle against the Germans before they arrive at Dunkirk, with the rescue at the beach as the stirring climax. Christopher Nolan rejected that whole approach and decided that all the action should be centered around the events that occurred at Dunkirk proper—hence, we never see one German during the entire film.

I am forced to argue that Nolan's approach is wrong-headed and despite his signature visual acumen, Dunkirk (2017) ultimately lacks punch. What happened at Dunkirk simply doesn't lend itself to much drama. Since the British were stranded on the beach and were unable to take any pro-active steps against the encroaching enemy, they basically played the role of "sitting ducks" until their miracle deliverance. Nolan's best scenes involve the British troops, unable to take cover on the beach, or lined up like sardines on the "mole" as they're unmercifully cut down by Luftwaffe pilots. The sense of fear is truly palpable as the defenseless men have nowhere to go.

It's the attendant fear, masterfully conveyed by Nolan, that grips us in the early part of the picture. But soon the scenes of dive bombing destruction give way to more conventional war action tropes, involving the sinking of various boats (the scenes of drowning victims are reminiscent of scenes from Titanic). In the middle of the action is one of the protagonists, Tommy, a British private, who survives two sinkings of boats intended to ferry the soldiers across the Channel—one boat is destroyed from the air and the other torpedoed.

Soon Nolan has Tommy along with a number of his confederates hook up with some Scottish soldiers who find a grounded fishing trawler in what I'm told (by Wikipedia) is the "intertidal zone outside of the Allied perimeter." Would soldiers have actually left the perimeter and put themselves at risk, with the unlikely hope of being able to get the trawler to float? And where do those unseen Germans come from who end up taking target practice? Somehow the soldiers inside the trawler miraculously escape being killed by machine gun fire.

The trawler sinks too but not before Gibson, a French soldier masquerading as British, gets tangled in some chains inside the trawler, and drowns. Nolan is determined to continually reiterate his "wall is hell" theme and serves up one additional destruction of a boat—this time Tommy and fellow soldier Alex surviving the destruction of a minesweeper —only to be rescued by a pleasure craft manned by its civilian captain Davidson, along with his teenage son Peter, and Peter's friend, George.

Davidson's saga forms the second in a triptych of stories, this time focusing on one of the hundreds of pleasure crafts conscripted by the British to sail across the Channel and save the beleaguered troops. In this tale, Davidson picks up a shell-shocked RAF pilot who's just been shot down by the Germans and wouldn't you know it, he can't handle the idea that they're headed right back into harm's way at the beaches of Dunkirk. Basically the pilot freaks out, hits poor George in the head while Davidson and son are trying to calm him down, and the poor kid sustains a severe head injury and ends up (as later reported in the local press) a "casualty of war." All of this unlikely turn of events seems rather heavy-handed or forced if you will, but Nolan is determined again to remind us that Dunkirk was more tragic than something to celebrate about.

The third story is told from the perspective of three RAF pilots who do battle with their Luftwaffe counterparts out above the open sea. It's noteworthy that the action takes place far from where the troops are stranded, none of whom who are able to appreciate the sacrifices the pilots make. (Since the pilots couldn't be in all places at once, they were unable to stop some of the dive bombers responsible for the all the carnage we see at the beginning of the film.) Hence, a familiar query was sounded after the battle with the troops asking the pilots, "where were you?"

Nolan's attention to detail is evident in the battle scenes in the air. But after a while, it feels a bit perfunctory and one longs for some character development in place of one plane being shot down after another. Nolan continues to commit himself to a non-glamorous view of war—when the last pilot runs out of fuel and sets his plane down—he ends up burning it so it won't fall into the hands of the enemy. And the pilot ultimately is taken prisoner (again no heroics).

In addition to lack of character development, Dunkirk suffers from the lack of a visible antagonist. Instead of the Germans, war itself becomes the antagonist and the film becomes more a generic anti-war film than a film rooted in history. If there were real heroes here, Nolan ignores them. Those would be the French troops who fought the Germans inland, to give the British time to put their rescue mission into action.

If you like seeing ships being bombed or torpedoed, scenes of men drowning, the unlikely death of a civilian at the hands of a shell-shocked soldier as well as a series of somewhat repetitious aerial battles, all presented on a non-linear time line, Dunkirk might be for you.

Ultimately I understand what Nolan is driving at—that in the larger context, the rescue at Dunkirk was still part of the overall tragedy of war. All well and good but the tragedy is conveyed through a series of standard war scenes without character development, so necessary for compelling drama.

Fitting tribute to Boston Marathon victims as well as gripping action-thriller, 30 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A nice mixture of fiction and fact, Patriots Day is Peter Berg's chronicle of the terrorist attack on the 2013 Boston Marathon and its aftermath. Mark Wahlberg stars as Boston Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders, a composite character based on various real people in law enforcement who were involved in the aid to the survivors of the bombing and subsequent investigation.

Patriots Day starts off rather slowly, mapping out where the principal characters were before the evil brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev commenced their dirty work. The Tsarnaevs are also profiled in the pre-bombing snapshot, as we're introduced to them as ordinary looking folk along with Tamerlan's Muslim-American wife, who figures prominently later in the narrative, when she's grilled by a team of crack investigators who specialize in interviewing terror suspects.

Once the bombings occur, the action is non-stop and best described as riveting. Of course the injuries to the victims probably don't appear as horrific as they were for those who observed them in real life, but Berg manages to intersperse actual footage from the scene that results in a fairly convincing verisimilitude.

A fascinating piece of the narrative is the behind-the-scenes investigation into the bombings, with FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (played by a highly effective Kevin Bacon) facing pressure from others when he initially declines to release information on the suspects.

One fact I wasn't aware of was that the Tsarnaev brothers took a Chinese student, Dun Meng, hostage, after carjacking his vehicle. Perhaps one of the most exciting scenes in the film is when Meng escapes his captors and then becomes a certifiable hero by recalling his GPS coordinates, which assists law enforcement in locating the Tsarnaevs.

As it transpired, the Tsarnaevs ended up in Watertown, a suburb of Boston, where the confrontation with the local police went down. J. K. Simmons bears a striking resemblance to the real Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, who actually tackled Tamerlan, and narrowly avoided death himself when Dzhokhar escaped, but not before running over his brother in a car.

The massive manhunt for Dzhokhar is ably chronicled, but one wonders how Saunders keeps popping up all over the place (especially in the middle of Waterown), since he's supposed to be a Boston beat cop (of course this is a matter of dramatic license, as Saunders is a composite character who is supposed to tie everything together).

Wahlberg does well portraying the edgy Saunders who can't hide the fact that he has a chip on his shoulder. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent including a slimmed-down John Goodman as the Boston police commissioner.

Patriots Day not only is an excellent action-thriller but manages to provide a fitting tribute to the victims of the carnage inflicted by the terrorists. It should definitely be on your must-see list for the films released in the last year.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Overlong but highly informative take on little known facet of Civil War history, 24 June 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It cost the producers about $50 million to make "Free State of Jones" but it only made $25 million at the box office. Maybe it was a little too long, or tried to bite off a little more than it could chew, and that's why it didn't catch on with the public. Nonetheless, it's a highly educational tome on a little known facet of Civil War history and is worth a look.

This is writer/director Gary Ross' pet project which was in the making for a good number of years. The story begins at the 1862 Civil War Battle of Corinth where Newton Knight (played by a thoroughly convincing Matthew McConaughey), a poor farmer from Jones County, Mississippi, is a disillusioned medic for Confederate forces tending to wounded soldiers despite a lack of tangible medical supplies available.

Ross presents a realistic recreation of a Civil War battlefield replete with Confederate soldiers marching in a suicidal formation against entrenched Union forces who blast them with superior artillery and rifle fire. The political situation is also explained as the rank and file are perturbed by the newly issued "Twenty Negro Law," which exempts rich slave owners from the draft if they own a minimum number of twenty slaves.

It's this atmosphere that causes Newt to think about deserting. He does so after his underage nephew shows up with the news that he's been drafted and most of the possessions on the family farm have been confiscated. The last straw occurs when the nephew is shot on the battlefield despite Newt's efforts to protect him (the nephew and his unlikely appearance is completely fictional, as Ross occasionally must make up character and scenes out of whole cloth, to fill in unknown details of the protagonist's personal life).

After deserting, in a memorable scene, Newt instructs a woman and her daughters how to handle firearms and repels a tax collector-soldier and his posse who show up at a farm to once again confiscate property. Newt becomes a wanted man and retreats to a swamp where he's aided by escaped slaves. One slave in particular, Rachel (who eventually becomes his second wife and mother of some of his children), saves his son from a high fever.

Eventually more Confederate soldiers begin defecting and end up joining Newt in the swamp where they organize "The Free State of Jones." They successfully conduct raids against Confederate forces and take control of Jones and some neighboring counties. In perhaps the most exciting scenes in the film, Newt and his group ambush Confederate soldiers at a church by hiding in coffins and dressing up as women. Newt kills the commanding officer in revenge for the hanging of teenagers who left the swamp after they were promised amnesty.

The last third of the film which deals with the Reconstruction period is a bit anti-climactic. Ross however makes a good point about how initially blacks were disenfranchised despite gaining their freedom, after local governments enacted "apprenticeship" laws, a form of indentured servitude. Only with the appearance and protection of Federal troops were blacks allowed to vote and gain office. Meanwhile terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan remained influential in the region. Ross invents the fictional character of former slave Moses Washington, a friend of Newt, who ends up lynched by racists.

Newt's last battle is just prior to the Election of 1876, where his efforts to help blacks vote fail after the Democrats (associated with white supremacists at the time) prevent Republican voters (mainly supported by blacks) from allowing any of their votes to count.

Ross only briefly touches on the conflict between the poor whites and former slaves while they are united fighting against the Confederacy. Ross perhaps was reluctant to explore this issue further as it might tarnish the legacy of Newt's Free State movement.

In addition, there is a series of unwise flash forwards involving Newt's great-grandson who was hauled into court in 1948 for violating the State of Mississippi's miscegenation laws (the absurd claim that Newt's great- grandson was "1/8th Negro," prevented him from marrying at the time). This could have easily been mentioned during the closing titles.

In addition to McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw does excellent work as the embattled Rachel, who taught herself how to read and had to contend with the opprobrium of her community due to her relationship with Newton Knight.

The Free State of Jones often feels like a glorified history lesson with all those attendant titles that pop up throughout the film, cluing us into what's going on in terms of historical chronology. Nonetheless, it remains a fascinating story that I certainly knew nothing about until watching such an informative film.

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