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60 reviews in total 
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Skyfall (2012)
9 out of 19 people found the following review useful:
Two Hours of Outtakes, 16 March 2016

You can plainly tell that Daniel Craig's heart was not in it. He mumbles his lines through a mouthful of marbles, as if he thought he had to save his real performance for the big night. The first result of that approach is the gaping vacuum where a strong protagonist should be: James Bond lacks even the barest intimation of charisma, for perhaps the first time. The second result is that, when the film was over, I had absolutely no idea what it was about.

I will admit I'm not really a fan of the series. The overlong action scenes and over-the-top stunts tend to bore me. "Skyfall" promised to be more down to earth, and for the most part lacks the franchise's trademark set-pieces. What action scenes there are, however, go on far too long: for example, Bond fighting a henchman atop a moving train until you've forgotten who's who and why they're brawling with each other, and stopped caring. And while it skips the gadgets and one-liners, it's still a hopelessly slick Hollywood product, staged and lit and digitally enhanced to within an inch of its life.

The plot -- from what I could tell -- seemed to be an extended excuse for the series' continued existence long after the end of the Cold War. Many of the secondary characters argue over the role of old-fashioned spies and intelligence agencies in an era of global terrorism and cyber-criminals, as if preemptively addressing criticism of escapist action films. The villain is a former MI6 agent with a needlessly elaborate plan to wreak vengeance on his former employer, Judi Dench. I think he wins in the end, though by that point in the film, over two hours since it all started, I wasn't paying very close attention.

Fury (2014)
2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Hell is Other People, 10 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Fury" is probably one of the bloodiest films I've ever seen. The story follows a young machine-gunner on his first (and hopefully last) mission in a Sherman tank as the US Army invades Nazi Germany in 1945. Brad Pitt is the tank's ruthless commander, determined to make a man out of the new recruit using the time-tested methods of rape, murder, and general mayhem.

I've noticed a funny thing about movie violence lately: the level of my disgust varies depending on who's inflicting the violence on whom. If the story's protagonists are the ones getting hurt or killed, I will empathize with them and leave the film suitably affected. However, if the heroes are the ones doing the killing, I will feel merely sickened. There's a whiff of sadism about watching Pitt and his crew blow apart enemy soldiers from the safety of their tank, and a certain perverse satisfaction in the gruesome finale.

All this suggests that the filmmakers miscalculated. If they wanted to tell me that war is hell, they've succeeded; but if they wanted to make me sympathize with the soldiers on the front lines, they've missed their mark. Pitt's crew are bloodthirsty psychopaths to a man, and not worthy of my sympathy. The level of violence -- raw, gritty, at times grotesque -- might be realistic, but what purpose does it serve if it only makes me want to turn the film off? The film seems to have been produced by and for the kind of people who are more interested in the weapons and ammunition -- and their horrific effects on human bodies -- than in why those weapons were used. The battle scenes in "Fury" are recreated with reverence and awe, but not a lot of logic.

Halfway through the film is an intermission in a German town. Pitt discovers two young women in an apartment, and hosts an impromptu dinner party for his men. For a moment he becomes almost admirable, as his refined Southern manners are contrasted with the animal antics of his men, but the scene goes from bad to worse when we learn that his motives were simply to get the new recruit in bed with a German girl. This is rape masquerading as a manly coming-of-age ritual, every bit as sickening as the violence.

It's hard for me to argue against any film that presents war as dehumanizing and destructive, as "Fury" accomplishes quite well. I'm also reluctant to condemn a film that implicates the audience in its crimes. But "Fury" assaults the viewer so relentlessly that it ends up causing resentment, and finally apathy. When the credits start to roll, you'll want to turn it off and forget all about it.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Oh! What a Lovely War, 1 September 2014

"A Bridge Too Far" is a bit of an odd bird: an all-star blockbuster epic about an epic failure. It probably demolished the whole genre of epic war films single-handed, at least for about twenty years or so. It's a bit of a downer, to be honest. But compared to "The Longest Day" or "Tora! Tora! Tora!" or "The Battle of Britain", it's a better film, with stronger performances, finer craft, and greater feeling.

Director Richard Attenborough, himself a veteran of the war, shows Operation Market Garden from as many angles as he can. The film actually begins with a Dutch family in Arnhem, before moving on to the Allied and German generals. From the plans and briefings the story moves into the field with the paratroopers, and Sir Richard manages the great feat of rendering all the scene changes and different points of view quite clear. Recognizable actors -- Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Elliott Gould, Michael Caine -- help more than hinder the production, though I'm sure some viewers will find their presence distracting and unnecessary.

Most remarkable is the balance achieved between praise and criticism. The heroism and bravery of the soldiers is never questioned -- nor, for that matter, is the sincerity of the generals who led the operation. The catastrophic failure is depicted as a combination of poor planning, uncooperative weather, and faulty intelligence that underestimated the size of the German opposition. No one is made a scapegoat: a failure of this size is a group effort.

This approach makes portions of "A Bridge Too Far" quite stirring and exciting, if you like that sort of thing. The sight of Dakotas dropping hundreds of paratroopers over Holland is a stunning spectacle, as are the columns of tanks and battalions of costumed extras. The music by John Addison -- who had actually served in XXX Corps during Market Garden -- is at times uplifting, at other times ironic, and ultimately melancholy, all with variations on the same melody.

The destruction of Arnhem and the brutal fighting between the British paras and the German SS is shown in unflinching detail. Attenborough is less interested in the combat -- though there's plenty of it -- and more determined that we see the wounded soldiers who pile up after every battle. In one scene an officer has to step over the bodies of his men to get from one part of the house to the other; they crowd the hallways and staircases and cover the floor. In a later scene, he communicates with his radio operator through a hole that's been blown in the floor. The Hollywood style has always been to show the action and skip over the aftermath, making "A Bridge Too Far" startling in its realism. The last scene shows the Dutch civilians leaving the devastated town, a reminder that wars and battles don't simply end once the shooting stops.

20 out of 35 people found the following review useful:
The Art of the Cliffhanger, 20 July 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Having read all the books, I suppose it's only natural that I should be completely bored of the TV series. But knowing what happens next hasn't stopped me enjoying and revisiting other books, movies, and shows -- in fact I've got a small shelf full of them. Perhaps the trouble with "Game of Thrones" is that it offers so few pleasures besides finding out "what happens next".

The cast is generally very good, and they make the material sound better than it really is. The dialogue is weighed down with clumsy expository speeches -- at least one per episode, usually more -- with which each actor has to wrestle. Peter Dinklage, as the dwarf Tyrion, stands out as a sympathetic, if self-centered, antihero, and he manages to command the screen even when his lines are stilted, clunky rubbish. Sean Bean, before losing his head, delivered a typically charismatic and soulful performance as the tragic hero Ned Stark, but even he struggled with the exposition. The many child actors, Maisie Williams especially, are more believable, maybe because children aren't normally saddled with huge chunks of Expo-Speak. Much of the rest of the cast have endeavored to create performances so subtle they end up almost wooden, while a few others engage in dodgy accents and some arch scenery-chewing. (Aiden Gillen, as the scheming Littlefinger, gets less comprehensible with each passing season).

The show is heavy on plot, with seemingly several dozen characters all competing for your attention while they vie for the throne of the Seven Kingdoms, or just try to out-maneuver and kill each other off. There's so much plot that there's hardly any room for style, and the show is filmed in a rather dull, stagy fashion: the average scene involves two characters sitting in a room or walking through the woods and trading Info-Dumps or arguing with each other, and periodically someone will get stabbed. The reliance on dialogue means you don't actually have to watch the show: instead you can just listen to it without missing much, except the gore and nudity.

And while there's nothing wrong with a little harmless gratuitous nudity, "Game of Thrones" pours it on with a trashy prurience befitting a sexually precocious 12-year-old boy, rather than an adult of either gender. The male gaze entirely dominates these scenes, apparently designed to appeal to fans of soft-core pornography who want a little high drama with their smut. Their gratuity can be gauged by the fact that the naked women are usually uncredited extras, and very few of the main cast -- male or female -- appear in these scenes. The gore and violence are equally trashy, with squirting arteries and squishy sound effects, to the point that they become more laughably ridiculous than genuinely painful.

So what happens next? That's really the only thing keeping this show going, as every episode and nearly every individual scene ends with a cliffhanger to keep you coming back for more. Characters are captured, betrayed, condemned to death, beheaded, or left for dead on a regular basis. Ned, Robb, and Catelyn Stark have all passed on, as have Tywin Lannister and his sadistic grandson Joffrey; the fun now will be seeing who gets bumped off next. But if you've read the books, or if you have any interest in watching "Game of Thrones" a second time, the question "What happens next?" isn't going to appeal to you. Even if you just want to watch a good story that's told well, you're going to have an uphill battle with "Game of Thrones".

Star Trek (2009)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Millennial Trek, 7 June 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

2009's version of "Star Trek" is a fast-paced, action-packed, frenetic, illogical, nonsensical thrill ride of a movie designed for today's attention-deprived audiences. Two hours in the movie theater left me with a headache and a slight feeling of nausea, which was no doubt the director's intention. Destroy the audience's senses and you're halfway to winning their devotion, much like how a skilled torturer treats his prisoner.

The movie has characters called Kirk and Spock, just as the old TV series did, but that's about as far as the similarities go. The other roles -- Uhura, Scotty, Chekov -- were reinvented for the film, but since they were two-dimensional to begin with that's hardly an issue; what's more annoying is that the writers have updated James T. Kirk for the Millennial generation by making him an unlikable, self-centered, preening egotist without even a shred of charm or a single admirable trait. It's fun to watch him get beat up, which happens at least twice, but I don't think that's the reaction the writers had in mind.

There's a manic plot involving a time-traveling villain blowing up planets with the help of some technobabble weapon, who's the catalyst for a series of contrived coincidences that bring together the heroic crew of the Starship Enterprise. Meanwhile Kirk and Spock meet for the first time, and their relationship follows the formula of a romantic comedy: first they're interested, then they hate each other, then after a big fight they come to love each other, and by the end of the story they're the best of friends.

There are a few odd things that I can only consider anachronisms: Kirk listens to the Beastie Boys and orders Budweiser at a bar, as if the movie didn't actually take place three hundred years in the future. Presumably this was done to let non-Trek fans know that it was okay to enjoy the movie. At the same time there's a visit from Leonard Nimoy, the Original Flavor Spock, to tell Trekkies that it's a legit Trek film after all. The references and homages to Star Trek canon come off more like jokes or parodies, as if it were an overblown SNL skit rather than a major motion picture.

But forget all that: Trekkie or not, all you really need to know about this movie is that it will offer you mindless entertainment for about two hours, assaulting your eyes and ears and sense of equilibrium in every way possible with today's computer-generated technology. About three hours after you started, you'll probably have overcome the motion sickness and forgotten everything you just saw.

6 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
A Parody with No Jokes, 7 June 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Have a look at the IMDb message boards for "Star Trek Into Darkness" and you'll see that most of the criticism from serious Trek fans focuses either on the film's plot holes or on the many ways director JJ Abrams and his writers have altered canonical Star Trek. Yes, there are plenty of plot holes worthy of nitpicking: transwarp beaming, life-saving blood transfusions, and characters with inconsistent motives. There are obviously all kinds of differences from old Trek, like the heroes' ages and accents and the size of the Starship Enterprise.

But really, none of that matters, because "Star Trek Into Darkness" is little more than an average summer action extravaganza, with spaceships instead of superheroes and aliens instead of orcs. There's a bad guy who wants to blow stuff up, and good guys who have to stop him, and there's an endless parade of chases, fights, explosions, and punch-ups. So what makes this a Star Trek movie? Not much.

Watching the film as a Trek fan is an odd experience, because even though it has Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, the Enterprise, the colorful uniforms, Klingons, and tribbles, they all feel completely out of place, like obscure cultural references randomly grafted onto a generic plot skeleton in an effort to distinguish it from every other summer blockbuster. Zachary Quinto shouting "Khaaan!" sounds more like a joke than an homage -- the sort of line you'd expect to hear dropped into the middle of a cartoon farce. The production design combines totalitarian militarism with Brutalist architecture and shiny modern interiors, while the cast charges through the breathless action sequences with barely a spark of life in them.

The pacing seems to have been designed to help numb the audience into mindless acceptance of the script's scatterbrained plot. For about 90% of the movie, the characters are running, shouting, or fighting, with lots of falling, jumping, and flying through the vacuum of space in rocket-powered spacesuits. Even when they're sitting still, the camera never stops manically whizzing around them, inducing motion sickness in any audience members who lack the intestinal fortitude of a fighter pilot. When the shooting starts, it's quite impossible to tell what's going on -- the dim lighting, bludgeoning sound, and frenetic camera-work create a jumble of images all jostling each other for our attention, and all losing.

This is the standard approach to special effects films: bigger, faster, louder. The idea behind them is to generate a sort of mental and cognitive vacuum in which the audience can wallow for about 132 minutes. Movies like this don't inspire us to think or feel, because if we do we'll realize that nothing we've been watching makes the least bit of sense. "Into Darkness" is a parody of Star Trek, an earnest TV show that, despite campy effects and clunky writing, always tried to make us think.

Mumbling and Squinting, 26 November 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Hollywoodland" suffers from trying to be two movies at once. The first movie, and the more entertaining of the two, is a biopic of George Reeves, the man who played Superman on TV in the Fifties. The second, and less interesting, follows Adrien Brody as a slovenly gumshoe trying to investigate Reeves' death.

The Superman side of things is shot in bright colors and a suggestion of period style. Ben Affleck is surprisingly good as Reeves, with a fake nose and a modest gut, and injects some humor and soulfulness into the character. The scenes showing the production of the TV series, with wobbly sets, dangerous stunts, and unrehearsed scripts, are kind of fascinating. Much more could have been done with that material -- even if it's been done before, it's always fun to get a backstage glimpse into a small slice of history like that. Hollywood is in love with its own mythology, and seldom misses an opportunity to worship at its own altar; this film is a perfect example.

The other half of the movie is just as familiar but nowhere near as interesting. Adrien Brody mumbles and squints -- like the new wave of Method movie actors who were displacing the old fashioned stars in 1959 -- as he slouches around drab locations looking for clues. He's an unsympathetic character, and his detective work doesn't seem to add anything to the story, considering he doesn't actually solve the case or discover anything remotely important. Instead he delivers most of his lines through clenched teeth, and one ends up pining for the good old days of Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, when actors knew how to speak clearly. Perhaps the film's point here was to demonstrate that real private investigators aren't like Philip Marlowe (played in the pictures by Bogart and Mitchum, among others); the effort backfires when the best thing that happens to Brody is a punch in the face.

The direction, acting, and production are generally good, but the film spends so much time wandering around its subject and distracting the audience with scenes of Brody's dysfunctional family life that all that hard work amounts to very little. The juxtaposition of the dreary reality of everyday life in Hollywood and the star-studded nightclub world of the big studios almost works -- but it works mostly against the movie, overdoing the drudgery and tedium of one while underplaying the glamor of the other.

U-571 (2000)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Who's the Hero?, 28 September 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

With only a few minor changes, this could have been a suspenseful thriller about a heroic German U-boat captain trying to take his vessel back from the Americans who have captured it, after slaughtering his crew. He's so sympathetic in his first scene -- and the Americans are so unlikable -- that I imagine the filmmakers must have panicked. They threw in a "kick the dog" moment, of the German captain ordering the massacre of a lifeboat full of people, just so the audience would know who was meant to be the villain.

This kind of thing happens in war movies all the time. The Americans -- led by Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel -- trick their way onto the U-boat and shoot just about everyone they run into. This is supposed to be heroic, because these are supposed to be the good guys. The German captain manages to hide out, and makes several attempts to sabotage the boat. This is supposed to be villainous, because he's the bad guy.

Of course, the real trouble with this sort of stark morality is that the entire film is a fabrication of the screenwriters. The situation is an invention, the characters are fictional, and every action is calculated for maximum effect. U-boat crews were not known for any cruelty beyond that exhibited by the Allied submariners, and yet the makers of this movie were compelled to upgrade their historical villain into a really nasty character. The point of all this is to make an exciting action movie -- it's not a documentary, right?

But then why is it a historical movie at all? Why bother making movies set in historical periods if you're just going to ignore the details? Nearly sixty years passed between the war and the movie -- so why not use the opportunity to educate the audience about what really happened, rather than simply aiming to excite them with tired clichés?

Well, apart from all that, it actually is quite an exciting ride. The camera never stops moving and things never stop exploding -- and Matthew McConaughey apparently never stops shouting. McConaughey makes a great villain, but this movie designates him as the hero -- the same way most stupid action movies do.

1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
A 133 Minute Dramatic Re-Enactment, 16 August 2013

"The Great Raid" followed on the heels of other popular war films like "Saving Private Ryan", "The Thin Red Line", and "Pearl Harbor" that hit cinemas around the turn of the century. Its aim is more educational: it takes fewer creative liberties, and revels in detail -- not only is there a narrator, but helpful captions pop up on screen to inform you of the location of every scene, as you might expect from a documentary. The writers expended so much effort on getting the details right that they forgot about the characters of their story.

The first two thirds of the movie tell three interconnected stories. There are the American prisoners of war in the Philippines prison camp, suffering and starving at the hands of their brutal Japanese captors. There's the attractive blonde nurse (Connie Nielsen) smuggling quinine into the prison and trying to avoid Japanese soldiers in Manila. Finally there's James Franco and his unit of US Army rangers planning a raid to liberate the POWs. The historical veracity of these scenes has been lauded by the type of people interested in that sort of thing.

So far the movie is largely about suffering: prisoners are executed in several horrible ways, and suspected members of the Filipino underground are rounded up and shot. (Many of them get killed trying to save Connie Nielsen, who, being tall and blonde, is more important to the film than they are). Meanwhile the whole thing is photographed in a dull, sepia-toned style well-suited to a Fourth of July weekend broadcast on The History Channel or Lifetime. The music, in what has become the standard for modern war movies, consists largely of a brass band playing somber variations on "Taps" and Aaron Copeland.

Once our heroes reach the POW camp the movie's documentary approach remains unchanged, though its focus shifts: now we get to watch the Rangers shoot the Japanese prison guards, which they do for about twenty minutes while the music tries to trick you into feeling excited. There's nothing exciting about this at all. All you're doing is watching people get shot and killed. I don't feel like I've learned anything about the war or the Philippines or the raid itself -- at least, nothing more than I could have read about on Wikipedia. The movie tells you "These things happened", but it doesn't get you involved in the story or the people. Maybe a few creative liberties would have gone a long way -- or perhaps just a writer and a director not so committed to saluting their subjects.

One last note: the events depicted occurred almost sixty years before the movie was made. Do the scenes of torture and violence serve an educational purpose, or do they just keep alive the poisonous feelings of nationalism and hatred that led to those events in the first place?

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
They'll Keep Fighting, and They'll Win!, 11 August 2013

This movie worked on me the first time I saw it, just like a good propaganda movie should. Had there been a recruiting booth in the cinema, I'd have joined the Mobile Infantry. (I was 14, so hopefully they'd have rejected me). As the years passed and I became slightly smarter, I noticed the other ways "Starship Troopers" works.

As a jingoistic wartime battle epic, it is pitch-perfect. The shallow characters engaged in their juvenile love triangle are straight out of a 1940's Warner Bros. movie -- except with the genders swapped. The hypotenuse of the triangle is killed off, and the surviving heroes realize that there are bigger, more important things than their measly little lives. Like those old films, "Starship Troopers" depicts heroes whose struggles and sacrifices contribute little or nothing to the big picture, but illustrate what the average citizen can hope to contribute to the great patriotic war. The ending -- "They'll keep fighting, and they'll win!" -- is quoted almost verbatim from the rousing finales of dozens of studio recruitment ads.

Along the way little hints are dropped that not all is as it seems -- that we're being carefully conned into rooting for the wrong team. The very beginning of the movie tells us that the war with the bugs was started when Mormon extremists colonized a bug planet: the humans were the aggressors. We are assured that the bugs are mindless creatures, but we're never told how they've settled on so many planets. The asteroid that wipes out Buenos Aires is the icing on the cake: how did the bugs hurl that rock through space, and how did they manage to hit such a tiny target on a planet that's mostly water? Even the scenery throughout makes you scratch your head: why are we fighting over the Badlands and Hell's Half-Acre?

In the end it's not at all subtle. It's subversive, but it wields its satire with a sledgehammer. War turns beautiful young people into mindless fascists, *just as it's doing to the audience*. Or maybe it really was too subtle: the terrific special effects, gory dismemberments, and gratuitous nudity must have numbed the audience to the movie's message -- they either loved it as a dumb popcorn adventure, or loathed it as a purveyor of precisely the sort of ideology it was attempting to savage.

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