Thursday, January 30, 2014

Saving Private Ryan - Movie Review

Steven Spielberg has always had a penchant for the grandiose. It is very much on display in Saving Private Ryan, both in the enormous scope of the project and the scale of violence. At the time of its release, this film was hailed as markedly graphic. Watching it today, after the last decade of Tarantino and the desensitization that accompanies that, it's hard to comment, but it is still shocking and unlike films like Braveheart, it imbues every death with importance, even those of faceless soldiers on the beaches of Normandy. 

Certainly unlike Braveheart, it has enough respect for the enemy to not draw them as one-dimensional Disney villains. They are Nazis, but they are human beings. (It was clear, to me at least, that the one cruel decision made by a Nazi was impersonal and almost accidental, once again driving home the point that in wartime, there is no time to stop and think, to pause and pick out one man in the mayhem.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Sherlock - The Sign of Three - Episode Review

Warning: spoiler-filled rant ahead.

And…apparently the game is not on. It’s tradition that the middle episode of each season of Sherlock will be the weakest, but The Sign of Three is possibly my least favorite episode of all three season so far. The tragedy is, I know Steve Thompson – the writer – can do better. While season one’s The Blind Banker was corny, season two's finale The Reichenbach Fall was excellent.

But let’s get down to it: the first thirty minutes are great. We’re thrown back into the swing of things, as Sherlock starts to deal with the idea of life without single John. “It changes people, marriage,” says Mrs. Hudson, widow of a double-murderer. The wedding itself starts about twenty minutes in—naturally we completely skip any proceedings inside the church and fast-forward to the reception. A group of amusing flashbacks show Sherlock organizing the wedding, warning off Mary’s ex-boyfriend and having a brief Iron-Man-3-esque personal Short Round. Sherlock has a conversation with Mycroft which, once again, emphasizes how much the wedding is going to change the Watson-Holmes relationship.

Then comes the best man’s speech, which I expected to last about five, maybe ten, minutes. My first mistake.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Broadchurch Season 1 - Review

“A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret...that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”
~Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Can you think of any TV show that John McCain, Anderson Cooper, Judd Apatow, Stephen King, and WORLD Magazine all like? Look no farther.

Broadchurch isn't a murder mystery. Sure, there's a whodunit at the center of the plot, but that's not really what it's about. Instead of whisking in a clever clogs detective who then, having dispensed almost divine justice, sweeps cleanly out of the aftermath, Broadchurch places its two main characters, D.I. Alec Hardy and D.S. Ellie Miller, directly in the path of the storm. Yes, Hardy is an outsider, but his personal objectivity is less a luxury than a necessary curse which spreads to everyone connected to the tragedy. 

Broadchurch isn't a major metropolitan area; it's not even an enormous manor house (both notorious crime centers in Britain). Instead, it's a small town, and in small towns, murder shakes everything.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sherlock - The Empty Hearse - Episode Review

Okay, so yeah, I'm going to be talking about everything that happened. And what happened last season. If you want a spoiler free review...go elsewhere, and good luck. However, I will attempt to keep the third season spoilers above the break. If you’ve come here looking for a review pointing out some hitherto unnoticed aspect in a well-crafted, tightly edited essay, you’re looking in the wrong place—this is just my impression, over-long and rather self-indulgent. But fun to write.

So let's face it, we've been waiting two years to find out how Sherlock fell. Was it worth it?

The short answer is: yes.

The long answer? Well, it was always going to be a little anticlimactic to those who had spent any time immersed among the wildly varying internet fan theories. It turns out, my guess was pretty much completely correct…they didn't throw us a last-minute curve-ball, they didn't unveil a brilliant, unexpected solution, they aren’t smarter than us (we do, after all, outnumber them by a few million). The great thing is, though, that they are quite aware of that, and so decide to mess with our minds in other ways.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness - Movie Review

Full disclosure: I've never watched a full episode of Star Trek. I've never watched a Star Trek movie. Really, the only exposure I've received is through cultural references - I know of the Klingons, I know a good deal about Spock, I know William Shatner couldn't act, and I know of the U.S.S. Enterprise and its mission to boldly go where no man one has gone before. I've heard "Beam me up, Scotty" and "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a ____" and "Resistance is futile" in many forms. I even know the famous climax of the Wrath of KHAAAAAAN.

So I do recognize that part of my dissatisfaction with this movie is that I miss some of the in-jokes, and the whole mythos that is Star Trek. But I don't think that's the only thing. After all, I thought a lot of the humor was quite funny. But Star Trek Into Darkness's greatest flaw is the lack of real character development. It starts off with promise, and themes quickly emerge as, following an action-packed opening sequence, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) places the entire crew at risk to save one member, Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is protesting the motion even as it is enacted. Thus is opened a conversation on sacrifice and responsibility.

This film could have been Master and Commander in space. It could have been a chance to teach the devastating consequences of reckless action and the value of making tough decisions, and at first, it seemed like we may be treated to a coming-of-age story with pretty boy Kirk, but his refusal to make hard choices - a prerequisite to being a captain - is only seen as a weakness, despite its necessity. Spock, in other words, is right. Just because it bruises the fragile feelings of the Enterprise's supermodel crew doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do. This simple observation slips by the wayside as we are thrown into a typical science fiction plot, packed with technical jargon and delusions of grandeur, in this case supplemented by a variety of throwback jokes and a strained attempt at a brotherly bond between Kirk and Spock.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Ladykillers (1955) - Movie Review

I grew up watching Miss Marple - not the new, politically correct, sexed-up series - but what we call the authorized version starring Joan Hickson. Hickson was a truly amazing actress, exceedingly subtle and very convincing. It's even more impressive since she really was in her nineties while filming the series. Of course, she was Dame Agatha's pick, and the queen's, but if you want to disagree, please go elsewhere.

Like Joan Hickson, Katie Johnson is one of those great little old ladies that completely disappears into her character and never needs to do something vulgar to be interesting. She had been acting since 1894, if that tells you anything, and won a BAFTA for this role. Her dainty, pink-clad Mrs. Wilberforce steals the film away from the ladykillers themselves, though they include such icons as Alec Guinness, a very young Peter Sellers, and Herbert Lom. Not that they give poor performances. They're excellent, their sleaziness contrasting perfectly with Mrs. Wilberforce's Victorian sensibilities.

Mrs. Wilberforce lives with her parrots in a lopsided house in London, and is looking to let her upper room. Appears "Professor" Marcus, a creepy, cunning Alec Guinness with enormous false teeth, completely removed from the classy Obi-Wan Kenobi, the only role for which he will (rather unfairly) be remembered. Professor Marcus quickly begins to entertain his friends, a group of "amateur musicians." There's the Major (Cecil Parker), One-Round (Danny Green), Louis (Lom) and Harry (Sellers.) It's not much of a spoiler that they are in fact a group of vicious bank robbers, who have concocted a plan that places the oblivious Mrs. Wilberforce right at the center of their machinations.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities (1935) - Movie Review

"Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth"

-Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Let's face it, A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite book. Thus, any adaptation is inevitably going to suffer from my extremely high expectations. My favorite may very well be The Dark Knight Rises. Kidding. Sort of. As of yet, no film version has come even close to my idea of How It Should Be (my screen-play is in the works, so keep an eye out, Hollywood), but the 1935 film is a pretty good attempt.

It's helpful with this film to have some familiarity with 30's movies. Considering it as among its fellows, it was very much ahead of its time, with clever cinematography, a tight script, a huge budget, and a decent cast. Of course, its greatest weaknesses are when it adhered to the then-common conventions, such as the ubiquitous sappy music, the occasionally choppy editing, and a one-dimensional female heroine.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Catch Me if You Can - Movie Review

I remember years back when my dad told me about the remarkable exploits of Frank Abagnale Jr. Abagnale was little older than I was, but he led a successful life of crime, impersonating an airplane pilot, a pediatrician, and a lawyer. I was fascinated.

So apparently was Steven Spielberg, who adapted the conman's life into a film in 2002, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.

Frank Jr. starts his life in the center of the 1950s American Dream. His father (a very good Christopher Walken) is a successful businessman, his mother a beautiful Frenchwoman. But one day, Frank Sr. can't charm his way out of his troubles with the IRS. It turns out Mrs. Abagnale isn't so charmed with Frank Sr. as she is with the American Dream, and the cracks are beginning to show. Divorce and loss of innocence. Frank Jr. can't take it, so he starts to run, desperate to renew his lost childhood. DiCaprio is particularly good in the role, concocting just the right mix of charm, innocence, and immaturity.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Life is Beautiful - Movie Review

The last three movies I've watched have curiously prepared me for this one, which I finished Monday. To End All Wars was a WWII film, taking place in a camp of sufferers. The Scarlet and the Black was about a resistance movement in Nazi Rome. Kind Hearts and Coronets was a film from the 1940's.

Life is Beautiful takes elements from all of these and improves on them, being a WWII tale set in Italy with a 1940's style of filming. Mark Twain once said "the personages in a tale [should] be alive, except in the case of corpses, and...the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others." In Life is Beautiful, unlike To End All Wars, a vast amount of time is spent in ensuring the life of the characters, before even a shadow of death darkens the horizon.

The Scarlet and the Black strove both for an amusing main character and menacing villains, but both efforts failed. Life is Beautiful excels in both directions, always evoking the correct response.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Clue - Movie Review

As all mystery buffs know, English manor houses are some of the most lethal locations on the planet, but if 1985 comedy Clue is to be believed, even American manors are pretty dangerous places to be. Naturally, the presence of Tim Curry helps a bit. You can't get more English than Tim Curry. Fact.

Based on the board-game, Clue both rips off and improves on the 1976 Murder by Death (amusingly, Eileen Brennan was in both, as Mrs. Peacock and Tess Skeffington), for despite the earlier film's prestigious cast listing, it spun into Scooby-Doo antics, featuring more inappropriate jokes than was necessary, and a slow, meandering plot. (But hey, blind butler Bensonmum, played by the great Alec Guinness, stripped naked lying dead in the kitchen? "Possibly some deranged dry cleaner...")

Not that Clue doesn't have it's share of Scooby-Doo-ness, but it manages to remain within the realm of barely believable, just out of Agatha Christie territory. Six people, all connected to the government in some form, are sent anonymous letters, inviting them to a dinner party in New England. Once there, they are met by a British butler, Wadsworth (Curry), who encourages them to employ false names, such as Mr. Green and Colonel Mustard, neatly following the plot of the board game. Soon enough, they discover they have been gathered to meet the man who is black-mailing them all, Mr. Boddy. Needless to say, his pseudonym quickly becomes very literal.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Kind Hearts And Coronets - Movie Review

Normally, I love British dry humor, but I think this may well have been one of the driest comedies I've ever seen. If American humor flourishes in the marshlands of slapstick, and British wit in a dry waste, Kind Hearts and Coronets is somewhere in the Sahara Desert. However, while it's not a funny, the film is still amusing, a dark, deadpan, ironic satire on everything that makes England English.

Coronets is certainly a black comedy, featuring as its protagonist Louis Mazzini, a ruthless, psychopathic serial killer. But he's English, which means he also has impeccable manners. Dennis Price plays the role to perfection, floating in and out of social functions while sadly lamenting his fiscal misfortunes. His mother, marrying an Italian singer, was disowned the rest of the D'Ascoyne family, and thus did young Louis Mazzini lose his stake in the family inheritance.

Regrettably but necessarily, old fellow, Louis must take drastic action. What he does do is begin killing off the family, one by one, to repay them for placing such value on social class, all the while climbing towards the duchy himself.