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Der rote Baron (2008)
High Flying Nobility
"The Red Baron" represents the English nickname given to Manfred von Richthofen (Matthias Schweighöfer), the handsome aristocratic ace German fighter pilot of World War I who went on to become a legend in his country and abroad. As a fighter pilot experienced in dog fighting, von Richthofen sees war in terms of duels fought between individuals governed by the rules of gentlemanly sport. Enemy pilots become friends, and the object of aerial combat becomes forcing an enemy plane to land rather than killing its pilot. When his brother and fellow aviator causes a French pilot to crash and burn in front of his eyes, von Richthofen expresses dismay.
While stationed in France, he befriends a Canadian pilot after shooting him down named Captain Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes), and begins a romance with a German nurse named Käte Otersdorf (Lena Headey). It is Otersdorf who introduces von Richthofen into the harsh realities of war when she takes him to a hospital ward filled with men who are horribly disfigured. Otersdorf comes off as an early 20th century pacifist; she treats soldiers regardless of their nationality and cannot understand why anyone would want to be a soldier. As a result of her feelings about war, she is initially put off by von Richthofen, but it should come as no surprise that she eventually succumbs to his charms.
Inspite of his relationship with Otersdorf, von Richthofen never loses his enthusiasm for combat, even taking to the air after suffering a serious injury. Von Richthofen's reasons for wanting to fly go beyond the natural desire of any pilot for risk and the sensation of souring like a hawk. He wants to be with his men, and he knows that the German fighting force looks to him for inspiration.
As for the presentation of Richthofen, my initial objection that Schweighofer looked too young to play an experienced pilot turned out to be unfounded once I researched the character. However, the fact that I later discovered that although Oterdorf was a real character, von Richthofen did not have a romance with her, made me feel that the filmmakers were playing down to the audience by playing the romance card unnecessarily. In addition, I was distracted by the obvious age difference between the two characters and their lack of chemistry. I found Von Richthofen, as portrayed brilliantly by Schwighofer, and his squadron interesting enough in and of themselves without Oterdorf.
Besides the casting, there were positive elements in the presentation of the film. The aerial combat was beautifully shot, and the score adequate. I recommend that you at least rent this film.
Coach Carter (2005)
Violence, Poverty, and Basketball
I grew up 3 blocks from the Richmond border, and am all too familiar with the poverty, violence, and desperation that plagues its residents. In Richmond, like in many parts of this country, young men cope with the rough environment in which they grew up by playing basketball (jerseys are sported by just about any boy under 22).
Having gone to high school with these kids (or rather with the Richmond kids who were bussed to my local high school), I became familiar with their subculture. What struck me most about the movie was just how well it captured the boys that I knew from Richmond. Maybe urban culture is the same around the country, but having grown up near Richmond and San Pablo (another neighboring city), they were the only urban youth with whom I was familiar.
By the way, in case anyone was wondering about the party in the wealthy neighborhood to which the Richmond basketball team was invited, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the communities are so close together that it is not uncommon for kids from poorer areas to hang out in areas that are more affluent, or to go to parties in those areas. However, I have heard that in other parts of the country, the "borders" between urban areas and the suburbs are not as fluid.
I do not remember reading about the dramatic victories of the Richmond High basketball team in the local paper, but I did take a community college class taught by an instructor who my mother told me once had Coach Carter in his class, and many of my clients have kids who were or are students at Richmond High.
After seeing so many films about events that took place years ago and far away, it was refreshing to see an interesting film about a community with which I am somewhat familiar. This film is worth at least a rental, particularly if you are from the East Bay.
On another note: Go, CAL Bears.....
Sweet and Romantic Retelling of Cinderella
Usually when a director tries to remake a beloved story, he or she ends up butchering it. Just think of all of the television adaptations of fairy tales that fall short of their intended mark. This story, however, succeeds in being clever and sweet, while still maintaining the basic elements of the classic story. There is an evil stepmother who works the main character to the bone, evil stepsisters (or at least one evil stepsister), a prince who is looking for a wife, our heroine posing as nobility to win the prince's heart, and a glass slipper. Only, instead of a fairy godmother, we have Leonardo da Vinci.
The actors are interesting, the dialogue funny and touching. True Dougray Scott may be a little too mature to play the immature prince, but he is so wonderful that you forget his age. Drew Barrymore is delightful, and is brilliant when it comes to humor. Angelica Huston and Megan Dodds are deliciously evil, and Melanie Lynskey is well-cast as the sweeter and less glamorous of the stepsisters.
In short, this film would make a wonderful addition to your family's film collection, and would make a particularly nice gift for a young girl.
Very Relevant to Our Times
Steven Spielberg's latest film begins with a terrorist attack on innocent civilians that is witnessed throughout the world. Both the families of the victims and those of the terrorists are affected, and a nation is left with the question of how to respond. Sound familiar? The year is 1972, and a group of terrorists, who have come to be known as Black September, have kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes and their coaches participating in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. This prompts Golda Meir, Israel's prime minister, to call a cabinet meeting in which the decision is made to assemble a team of elite assassins headed by Meir's former bodyguard; a gentle family man "with butcher's hands" whose wife is expecting their first child.
The team includes people who are experts in different areas of espionage. Robert is an expert in bombs. Until he was given this assignment, he worked taking them apart. Hans is a forgery expert; it is his job to keep the real identities of the group members secret with falsified documents. Then there are those who do not seem to have any particular talent, but are needed to do things like clean up after hits (i.e. Carl), or look really cool in sun glasses and add a touch of glamor to undercover work (i.e. Steve, who appropriately enough is played by the newest James Bond).
As the body counts start rising, Spielberg has some of his characters question whether their mission is really the best way that they can serve Israel and their own humanity. Robert questions whether killing people goes against what Judaism stands for. He reminds Avner that the Jews are a "righteous" people, and that is what makes them "beautiful." Avner questions the purpose of killing one group of terrorists, only to have them replaced by a group far more dangerous to Israel.
As a whole, I found this film very thought provoking. However, like "Shindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," it is also extremely violent. Spielberg, like Mel Gibson, is not a director to give the audience much relief from painful images. A worthy film, which deserves its nomination as best picture, with a cast dominated by strong actors, with no one giving a bad performance. The only criticism that I had of the film was that it may be a little too long, or it at least felt that way. As you can imagine, when the plot involves the location and killing of several antagonists, there is a tendency for repetition, although Spielberg somewhat avoids that by making each killing unique (as morbid as that sounds!).
The Constant Gardener (2005)
"Gardener" Moves at Same Pace as Flowers Grow
"The Constant Gardener" seems like an appropriate name for this film due to the speed at which it moves. Furthermore, it takes the patience of a gardener to try to sort out the story. The movie begins with the death of Tessa Quayle, the wife of a mild-mannered and very conventional English diplomat. The last time that the diplomat, Justin, saw his wife, she was flying to Kenya with a Kenyan doctor with whom she has developed a close professional (and possibly personal) relationship. However, when she is found, she is in the company of another man, not the doctor.
We learn quickly that Tessa is both passionate and compulsive. Justin and her meet when she stands up during a press conference that he is giving and confronts him about the policies of the British government towards "third world" countries. Her behavior interestingly enough, has the opposite effect than that intended (perhaps because Justin finds her cute and spunky), and Justin and Tessa go straight from the press conference to her town house to get "closer." After Justin and Tessa are married, Tessa manages to convince Justin to take her with him on an official trip to Kenya, and once there, she witnesses the mysterious death of a young Kenyan woman. This motivates Tessa to try to learn more about AIDS drug trials in Africa.
After Tessa's death, Justin decides to try to retrace Tessa steps in order to learn how she died, and uncovers a vast conspiracy involving a profitable drug company.
Although the movie does succeed in being somewhat suspenseful at times, it takes too long to reach its conclusion, elements of which are foreseeable.
King Kong (2005)
Kong's Box Office Crown Seems Ill Deserved
I am sorry to say that I was not as charmed with this film as many other people clearly were. Inspite of having a good cast and an Academy Award winning director, "King Kong" failed to keep my attention. I was disappointed with the pace of the film, as it took approximately an hour to even reach Skull Island (Kong's home). Once there, too much time was wasted on pointless chase scenes involving CGI creatures. Although, the movie begins to pick up once the main characters and Kong reach New York, by that time it is two-thirds done.
Furthermore, most of the potentially memorable scenes are somehow diminished, such as the "sacrifice" of Ann Darrow to Kong by the natives of Skull Island, the capture of Kong, and Kong's "debut" in New York. The only scenes that I really enjoyed were somewhat minor scenes: Ann putting on a show for Kong, and Kong ice skating. Then, of course, there is the famous scaling of the Empire State Building, which was very well done.
As for the human love story that was supposed to be interwoven with the main Ann/Kong "love" story, I did not feel that it was as strong as it could have been, which is a pity, because both Naomi Watts and Adrian Brody have demonstrated in other films that they are capable of connecting emotionally with other actors on screen.
All in all, I was somewhat bored throughout most of the movie. Granted I have not seen the original 1933 movie as yet, so I cannot compare this version to that one, but I much preferred the 1976 Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange version. Many of the pivotal moments in the story were made more memorable in spite of the vastly inferior special effects available to filmmakers in the mid-70s, including the aforementioned "native sacrifice" scene, the capture, and the unveiling scene.
Beautiful Tale of Revenge and Power
"Gladiator" is about revenge and the struggle between two men for Rome, one an emperor, the other a gladiator slave. The movie begins as Emperor Marcus Aurelius ends his twelve year campaign against the "barbarians" to secure the borders of the Roman empire. Following a victory against a Germanic tribe, Aurelius tells his favorite general (who is like a son to him) that he wants him to be his successor and to be the "protector" of Rome until the Senate is ready to rule. He wants Rome to be republic once more, but has reservations about whether his son Commodos is willing to give up power. The favored general, Maximus, turns down the emperor's offer because he does not feel that he has the political background to rule Rome, and because he wants nothing more than to go home to his wife and child.
In less than a night, Maximus' hand is forced when Commodos assassinates Aurelius and declares himself his heir. When Maximus realizes what has happened, he refuses to give Commodos his loyalty. Commodos orders him and his family executed. Maximus escapes, but his family is burned and crucified (an execution method of which the Romans were particularly fond). Maximus is enslaved and turned into a gladiator when a passing caravan finds him at his burned out home unconscious. Gladiator fights have become very popular since Commodos overturned his father's ban on them, and the man who runs the gladiator school where Maximus is being trained, Proximo, if looking to profit from his new acquisition. Although he initially refuses to fight, Maximus soon gains fame throughout the empire, and respect from his fellow fighters, as "the Spaniard," and eventually finds himself fighting in the Coloseum in Rome.
The Rome that greets Maximus is completely under the spell of Commodos, who has won the people over with spectacular gladiator matches. When Maximus become a crowd favorite, Commodos takes an interest in him (not having recognized him). As the two men meet in the middle of the arena, and "the Spaniard"'s real identify is revealed, a power shift occurs, and Commodos realizes that he can no longer kill Maximus and still keep the Roman public on his side. Maximus realizes this as well, and what follows is a beautifully orchestrated contest of powers between the two men, which culminates in a final showdown in the Coloseum, and an emotionally charged ending.
Also to be commended is Hans Zimmer for his beautiful score.
Cinderella Man (2005)
A Fighter With Heart
Ron Howard's biographical account of the "comeback" of James Braddock, a Depression era boxer who briefly found himself poor and out of favor with the boxing commission (and the public) after having reached the zenith of his fame in the 1920s, is a truly inspiring story. Although I am not a boxing fan, and do not generally voluntarily see boxing films (ie. I was forcibly taken to see "Million Dollar Baby" by a family member, and still have not seen a "Rocky" film or "Raging Bull."), I had heard wonderful things about "Cinderella Man" and decided to give the film the benefit of the doubt. I am so happy that I did! This film is appealing on so many levels. At its core, it is more about love and family, and the sacrifices couples make for each other and their children than it is about boxing. Even the scenes that take place within the ring pack emotional punch (no pun intended), and are moving.
The match between Max Bauer and James Braddock is particularly well shown, and I found myself enthralled in their monumental struggle, which is shown as being a kind of David and Goliath conflict. As a result, I put aside for a few minutes my social objections to boxing, and found myself cheering for the "Cinderella Man". Russell Crowe brings the same Oscar worthy caliber of acting that he did to his role of Maximus in "Gladiator" and John Nash in "A Beautiful Mind", allowing the audience to identify and sympathize with James Braddock. By the end of the film, one is made to care about the character, and the plight of his family.
It is a pity that this film made only $50 million in box office sales, because it deserved far more, making it perhaps the most underrated film of 2005.
Proof Lucas Still Has It!!!!
After seeing Episodes I and II, I was beginning to wonder what had happened to Star Wars. Would the prequel ever live up to the quality of the original trilogy?
I am happy to be able to say that Episode III equals or excels "The Return of the Jedi" (which I consider the best of the original). Like many Star Wars fans, who did not understand all the whining that Anakin did in Episode II, I was not overly impressed with the acting. For that reason, I gave Episode II a mixed review (finding it fun to watch, but not worthy of the Star Wars name). I now see, having re watched Mark Hamill's performance as Luke Skywalker in Episode IV, and finding it comparable to Hayden Christiensen's in Episode II, that Lucas wanted Anakin and Luke to take similar paths of emotional development (in order to make Luke turning to the dark side plausible). And in fact, I suspect that those who had seen Christiensen's work in "Shattered Glass" were not surprised to see him shine in Episode III.
Lucas has put together a good story, and one that succeeded in moving me at times. Among the highlights were some nice scenes of Anakin and Padme together, several particularly well done dramatic scenes (i.e. the confrontation between Anakin and Count Dooku, the "Order 66" scenes, the "opera" scene, the "turning" scene, the battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan, the "immolation" scene, and the placement of Anakin in the Vader suit).
True there are problems with Episode III. However, it has enough good going for it to overlook its faults. Like Episodes I and II, heroes escape from villains too easily (perhaps a throw back to the original trilogy in which not even one storm trooper could hit his target). The dialogue has improved only slightly; with C3PO and Yoda having the best lines. Although I have always had a great deal of affection for Yoda, unlike some Star Wars fans, I was never too keen on his fights, finding his resemblance to a green yo-yo on speed distracting. And, like many Star Wars fans, I was more amused than moved by Vader's "noooooo" (you know what scene I am talking about!).
War and Remembrance (1988)
A Miniseries Like No Other
The broadcast of "War and Remembrance", based on Herman Wouk's novel, was a television event. Although recapturing the excitement of watching the miniseries can cost you around $180, it is well worth it. From its beautiful opening and closing score to its unforgettable images and people, "War and Remembrance" is like no other. Because it was an epic miniseries, which cost around $110 million to make, the television powers that be were able to film at various locations around the world and bring vastly different (yet interconnected) stories of the war to the small screen. In that sense, it is like several miniseries rolled into one.
"War and Remembrance" revolves around the lives of two families, the Henrys and the Jastrows. The connection between them is provided through the marriage of Byron Henry and Natalie Jastrow. The Henrys are a naval family: Victor "Pug" Henry serves both as a diplomat and as the commander of a destroyer at various times in the series, Byron Henry serves on a submarine in the Pacific, Warren Henry is a naval pilot married to the daughter of a Senator. Byron's wife, Natalie Jastrow is an American Jew in Europe trying to escape the Nazis along with her uncle, Aaron Jastrow, and her son with Byron, Louis Henry. Aaron Jastrow's cousin is a Jewish Polish soldier trying to survive Auschwitz. Those are just some of the characters whose stories captivate the audience. There are also the experiences of their spouses, lovers, and the relatives of their spouses and lovers.
The audience is also given a glimpse into the thinking of the Nazi leadership, with Steven Berkoff providing a chilling and brilliant portrayal of Adolf Hitler. Here was a look at the Holocaust and the events and decisions leading up to it that was unprecedented at the time that the series debuted in 1988.
It is unfortunate that I have not found many libraries that carry copies of this miniseries on either VHS or DVD, forcing many people to either buy it or miss out on experiencing it. I, for one, have chosen to buy it, and I do not regret it for a day. I also recommend reading the book.