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Captain Phillips (2013)
Well done, generally realistic thriller
We were pleasantly surprised by this film. Even knowing how it ends, the suspense wore us out. It stuck fairly well (by Hollywood standards) to facts, except for the extreme time compression of a film story, and some unnecessary bits ("If you want to shoot someone, shoot me!"). Tom Hanks was capable as always. Neither he nor the crew appeared heroic, so much as people trying to make the best of a bad situation. The captain's awareness of danger and decision to stay only 300 nm offshore was depicted, along with his conviction that "further out wouldn't make any difference". Also, the desperate situation of the pirates, their being bullied into piracy, their conviction of being robbed by illegal fishermen, their personal lack of resources and gain (those millions go to the bossmen) from piracy all were described. The deep social pathology of Somalia's current anarchy is evident, but not highlighted. I imagine the US Navy loved this movie, but they had overwhelming force available. The hostage could lose, but the pirates could not win. Many of the reviews say more about the viewpoints of the reviewers than the movie itself. Barakhad Abdi and Faysal Ahmed were brilliant in depicting the intelligent, conflicted, and deeply messed-up characters they portrayed.
How did you find your steak? Parts of it were excellent...
We were disappointed.
Sound and visuals were stunning as expected. However, there was too much action, a lot of it irrelevant or unbelievable by the standards of the Middle Earth franchise, and not enough character development.
The additions from LOTR supplements were tolerable, and might explain things to a newbie. At least they fit the intent of the story. The added "Azog hunts Thorin" backstory was a distraction that made this more action movie than drama. The numerous long falls, or stuff falling on people without somehow killing them were just ridiculous, in a way that clueless trolls debating how to eat dwarfs were not.
We were OK with the lighter mood than LOTR, which mirrors the books. Our kids watched the Hobbit, but are not quite ready for the more believable violence and terror of LOTR.
Fundamentally, this much simpler story does not demand a nine hour movie. The efforts to expand it appear purely commercial, effectively to capitalize on the phenomenal success of LOTR. As the mixed reviews here show, this might backfire unless the last installment is fantastic.
Part of our disappointment is that Jackson and Boyens really captured the spirit of LOTR well, particularly in Fellowship and Return of the King. A little more restraint here, with an eye to simply telling the story well without a lot of added Hollywood-ey crap would have been welcome.
Deep Blue (2003)
Visually brilliant, but needs explanation
The BBC spent a lot of money making this film, and it shows.
The underwater footage particularly was fantastic. Deep Blue deserves awards for photography, cinematography, and editing. Many of the life forms and animal (fish, crustaceans and marine mammals) behaviors were unusual and fascinating.
The music was, well, a matter of taste. Sometimes terrific, sometimes overdone, occasionally just loud, intrusive and unnecessary.
All that said, we were very disappointed in the absence of narration throughout. Our kids asked many questions; some we could answer because of prior knowledge or experience; others left us at a loss. There were many strange behaviors (e.g., what were those sand crabs up to? Why exactly does the Orca fling the (dead or dying) sea lion through the air?) that needed explanation. After spending millions on a documentary, they could have spent a little money on a marine biologist to answer all the unanswered questions; make it educational.
After the little sand crabs, there is a sequence of an invasion of much larger crabs that come and go, also without explanation. We do not even know the name of the larger crabs to be able to look them up.
A fraction of the budget could have been devoted to a better "script", which is the single most decisive element in the commercial success of films. Big stars, dumb story = Ben Affleck flop = disappointment.
This was the Black Stallion of documentaries...
The Black Stallion (1979)
...parts of it were excellent.
The Black Stallion feels like an extraordinary high-quality film school PhD project. I found it hard to categorize.
The cinematography, lighting, and editing were beautiful -- more like a moving painting than a film. Production values were superb all the way around; you feel as though the director knows exactly what he is doing with every scene.
Unfortunately, I find it hard to stare a single painting for an hour.
Between the beginning of the shipwreck and the point where Mickey Rooney enters the film, there is almost an hour with no dialog. I was relieved when Alec's mother said her one line, but she spoke to the horse. This might work as a book, because narration uses language. But a film that runs an hour with no dialog or character development is interminably boring, unless you are watching just for the visuals.
Then there is the weak story you can discern between the frames: Alec loses his father, almost drowns, survives a shipwreck alone. He must be traumatized. Yet he manages to break a ferocious stallion with sugar cubes, leaves, and a knife to cut ropes when required in what must be only a few days. Not to mention that he and the horse would be dead, since we never see any fresh water on the island. Oh yeah, and his skin would peel off in the blistering sun since he abandons clothes in typical Hollywood desert-island fashion, written by someone who has never spent two days in the wilderness. And he does not even talk to the horse.
He gets home, and still never talks. Even 70 years ago he would have ended up in an institution. And why doesn't his mother talk to him.
If you like the karaoke (no speech) version of films, you will enjoy this. But if you want a conventional story with sane characters, skip it. We got fed up and switched off in the middle, so we missed Mickey Rooney's performance (always worthwhile).
The Queen (2006)
Helen Mirren is invisible in this film. You see Queen Elizabeth IIR living out a very difficult week, and you cannot believe it is just a film. She certainly earned the Oscar -- this is one of the best performances of any kind ever, where a well known star disappears completely within the role. It was worth seeing for that alone.
James Cromwell as Prince Philip and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair also turn in very solid performances.
The Queen also highlights the peculiarities of the UK's semi-constitutional monarchy, and the inherent tension between Queen and Prime Minister, where Her Majesty (after ten Prime Ministers) can address the man with the nuclear trigger like he is a novice.
You really feel as if you are getting a peek into the weird dynamics and private lives of the royal family, as well as the more (relatively) ordinary lives of the Prime Minister's, in spite of his tremendous power.
This was the most striking film I have seen in a long time.
Silent Partner (2005)
Not great, but not bad either
A lot of people have to hate a film for it to score so poorly.
I do not get why. This low budget thriller has an interesting story, except for the ambiguous ending, some decent action, a Joe Everyman hero, and (you could tell Russians made it) way more interesting than typical cinematography, camera work, and music than a typical American cheapo.
Yes, we have met all these characters before, but some care was put into the production. I felt it was better than average, worth seeing once anyway. There is a huge amount of worse crap out there, particularly in the action / thriller categories.
I spent a little time in Eastern Europe, and they definitely convey the feel of the place. Except that the amount of shooting in the biggest fight scene would have drawn enough regular cops to suppress both sides and arrest everybody for something. Until the bad guys got let out by their patrons.
The last third of the movie went downhill and was not as good as the rest.
The Temple of Dumb
Production values: superb. Harrison Ford: his usual self. Action: Pretty darned good.
I saw this recently (only my second time) and was struck that I did not really remember much from the first time, except for the sinister Mr. Lal, and the bridge stunt. Having seen it, I understand why.
Short Round was good. Kate Capshaw was... yecchh -- a stereotype that ought to offend all self-respecting women. Many sequences (life raft as a parachute) were just too unbelievable, even by the standards of fantasy films. I never worried that any of the principals might actually get killed.
The depictions of Thuggee religion probably offended about a billion Indians. And the mumbo-jumbo sequences were just too long, boring, and gruesome. We almost switched off.
Skip this one -- it is not in the same class as the other two Indy films.
American Outlaws (2001)
Avoid at all costs!
Why did Colin Farrell make this movie? At his level of talent, he can't need the work so badly.
Pitiful story that tries to romanticize a gang of violent criminals, putting 21st century people and attitudes in period costumes. It does not work.
The "action" is so unbelievable from the first two minutes, it sets the tone for the entire film. A group of Confederates are ambushed by a vastly superior Union force, and the Jameses and Youngers manage to singlehandedly save the day, using John Cage style action tricks. Except that 200 incompetent guys with rifles would have turned them into hamburger.
Skip it unless someone pays you to watch.
Mercury Rising (1998)
Die Hard meets Rain Man
We really enjoyed this film in spite of its stereotypical elements and plot holes. If you accept the premise, it will grab your emotions and carry you away with suspense and sadness.
The flaws are obvious, some easily corrected: Why not use the boy rather than dispose of him? Very few folks in career US Government service would deliberately kill innocent US civilians for any reason. Kudrow's cover-up would make more sense as protecting his career rather than protecting an obviously compromised encryption system. Many details are wrong or unbelievable.
Bruce Willis and Alec Baldwin perform competently with a weak story, but they have been typecast; we have seen them in these same roles (damaged hero and heartless villain) too often to tell whether they can still act.
Miko Hughes' amazing performance made this film. He manages to act very believably unnatural throughout -- hard even for an adult actor. Simon is almost completely helpless as it is, *SPOILER AHEAD* he loses his parents and is terrorized by events that he is even less equipped to cope with than an ordinary child.
If you have your own kids or have ever worked with special needs kids, the suspense is radically increased by your sympathy for the incredible suffering Simon endures and struggles with.
If you are looking for pure action, or have a critical eye for believability, you may want to give this a pass. However, if you love children, this is one serious emotional ride.
The Tuxedo (2002)
Mindless but hilarious entertainment
I am surprised by how low rated this film is. Don't think. Just laugh.
Jackie Chan dryly pokes fun at action film clichés. He plays a non-hero, an unassuming regular guy who can't meet a girl, or do anything except drive, who gets sucked into a ridiculous situation.
Completely unbelievable and ridiculous. Not great cinema. All action movies are that way; this is funny because of the low-key irony.
Even Jennifer Love Hewitt seems deliberately miscast, but hilarious as she vacillates between superintelligent nerd, ditz, valley girl and superheroine.
We prefer this to Austin Powers with its completely over-the-top, zero subtlety. Here the sexual innuendo would not be missed by a teenager, but would go right over the head of kids, making it a film any age could enjoy. But you have to want to laugh, not critique.