Saturday, May 31, 2014

Henry V (1989) - Movie Review

When Henry V debuted in 1989, 28-year-old director and star Kenneth Branagh was hailed as the new Olivier. It was something of a premature announcement, but not unwarranted. Twenty-five years later, it’s still Branagh’s best movie, even if he did improve in subsequent films. For instance, Henry V’s beginning is weighed down by dull politics and difficult language (though Derek Jacobi’s opening monologue is inspired,) and Much Ado About Nothing, by contrast, improves in clarity. But Branagh proved to suffer from Peter Jackson Syndrome: his judgment clouded by fame and large budgets.

As a Shakespeare fan, I’m nowhere near expert. Henry V is my favorite movie adaptation of The Bard, and my inexperience may partly be the reason—for it is both accessible in its raw, visceral emotion and complex in its treatment of the subject material. Still, I'd definitely recommend this one to those who have read the play, for it often opts for emotion over simplicity.

A plot summary really ought to be superfluous, but Henry V isn’t actually as familiar on a cultural level as Julius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet. In brief, it’s the tale of a young medieval king who led his country to war against France, narrated by a snazzily-dressed Derek Jacobi, and featuring the best pre-battle pep talk of all time.

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” That one.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Man for All Seasons (1966) - Movie Review

"More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity: a man for all seasons."
~Robert Whittington, 1520

This film took me by storm. I expected a dry, rather cheap-looking medieval period piece, with a few quirky British thesps to spice up an otherwise dull historical biopic. Given the age and source, it seemed like an archetype of respectable, old-fashioned film-making. In a way it was. It wouldn’t be made today—it was far, far from the cutting edge of cinema, even in its own time. But it’s just these things that allow it to be the best film I’ve seen this year. 

A riveting political fable, A Man for All Seasons is jam-packed with superb performers and spearheaded by the most interesting protagonist I’ve encountered in a long time. It uses many standard conventions—long scenes, big-budget visuals, everything a little bit stagey, but given these play-like customs, it is allowed a slow, insistent growth of suspense and complexity of character. There are moments when you could cut the tension with a knife, mostly due to clash of personality between these expertly drawn characters.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Band of Brothers - Review

A lavish, moving drama centering around a ragtag band of soldiers fighting their way across Europe, Band of Brothers is an incredible testament to the bravery and ingenuity of the WWII military. From a technical standpoint, it's astounding - easily equal to most big-budget films, and often better. The settings, music, sound-mix, acting - everything combines to form an amazing period piece.

On the other hand, the story-telling itself has some issues. For one thing, like in Saving Private Ryan, I had a lot of difficulty keeping up with the varied members of the humongous cast. This made it much harder to empathize with those that lived or died. Many times I found myself asking "Wait, was that ____ who just died?" or "Has ____ been here the whole time?" It isn't helped by the fact that there are frequent new faces as replacements fill the ranks, and who sometimes act as protagonist for an episode. A heavy dose of action (exquisitely filmed and executed) early in the series also distracts from character development, and in the end I could number very few of the men by personality rather than name.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Valkyrie - Movie Review

World War II is Hollywood’s favorite war. Complete with a plethora of extraordinary makeshift heroes, it also provides our favorite touchstone for absolute evil: the Nazis. We can safely hate the Nazis.

Except we can’t. While there were, unquestionably, truly depraved Nazis (just mention the named Oskar Dirlewanger and I shudder,) there was also a significant German underground resistance. Many Christians broke from the official Reichskirche to form their own free church. This opposition extended into the highest echelons of the government—many military leaders despised and distrusted Hitler.

But Hollywood’s record hasn’t been stellar when it comes to recognizing this. Needless to say, when Valkyrie—an account of the German attempt to assassinate Hitler—was announced there was significant worry from Germany that this production would slip into the same mistake. It wasn’t helped when Tom Cruise was cast as the hero, Colonel Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a German aristocrat with a pedigree even longer than his name.

But this worry was misplaced. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Minireview: Flywheel

This film quite surprised me. While obviously shot on a tight budget and suffering from some weak acting and preachiness, Flywheel's unrelenting sense of reality saves it from the mass of faith films.

It just all seems so real (even more so, in fact, than the more polished films the Kendricks would later produce). The used car lot, the unglamorous people, the dialogue. The ever-sincere Alex Kendrick, as well, anchors the cast as a Scrooge character, Jay Austin. Instead of demonizing Austin in his swindling sales, we're allowed to see his motivations, understand why he does it, and also how he justifies it to himself (even though we don't sympathize.) We can see clearly that while getting his life together and turning to God could solve some of his problems, it will exacerbate others. What's more: it does, and it's no plain sailing from there on out.

While we do end with a little too much sunshine, Flywheel is an entertaining faith drama (albeit with a set audience), that is endearing in its smallness, earnestness, and willingness to take on the issues not just of converting to Christianity, but living with it.

3.5/5 stars

Hannah Long

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ratatouille - Review

Ratatouille Movie PosterWhat does it mean to create? What does it mean to critique? These are two questions I didn’t expect to hear voiced in an animated children’s film about a French rat.

But then, Brad Bird is the man when it comes to upending expectations.

Remy is a country rat with an unusually acute sense of smell. While this gift leads him to become a food connoisseur, his more practical family employ him to be the Poison Detector. Remy, on the other hand, has other ideas. Inspired by a cookbook entitled “Anyone Can Cook,” he begins on a gourmet career that will lead him to the very heart of Paris. There, he makes friends with an awkward garbage boy named Linguini, and using this human companion, makes a splash in the culinary world.

Ratatouille manages to avoid the majority of animal-film clich├ęs. Remy is chipper and positive, but he is also intelligent and complex; Linguini has a life beyond just being the Faithful Master. It avoids cuteness, and though there’s a brief anti-cruelty-to-animals moment, it sidesteps more heavy-handed commentary, such as the anti-gun theme in Bird’s earlier film The Iron Giant. The animation is interesting and artistic, creating a beautiful, atmospheric vision of Paris. The cast is almost devoid of caricatures, and the major one I remember is offset by development from a parallel character.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Minireview: Captain Phillips

The tale of a 2009 hijacking off the coast of Somalia, Captain Phillips is an intense, visceral suspense film with some terrific performances from Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Culture shock between Abdi and Hanks spices up a conventional action movie and the humanization of both sides saves the inevitable victory from savoring of triumphalism.

The choice to narrow the focus, refusing to cut back to the home countries of either the protagonist or antagonist does much to intensify the feeling of isolation, but is somewhat lessened by the many scenes aboard the glitzy, modern Navy ships (this isn't Bourne here, fellas). Some of Hanks's all-time best acting is set alongside the odd, quirky, sullenness of excellent newcomer Abdi.

While it becomes rather repetitive and tedious during the last act, the conclusion is truly moving. I don't think I'll be watching it again soon, but if I did it would be for the last ten, twenty minutes - a pure shot of adrenaline dwindling into a quiet end that's begging the audience to Think About It - to lean back after the thrills and terrors and reflect on events - that certainly doesn't happen with many films, much less suspense films. This one is definitely a top contender for my best-of-the-month pick.

4/5 stars

Hannah Long

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Rescue Dawn - Movie Review

Rescue DawnRescue Dawn is an interesting, surprisingly apolitical war film about the escape of Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler, played by Christian Bale. In many ways, it feels like it could be the unofficial sequel to Bale's first film, Empire of the Sun - in which he was a young child, Jim Graham, in wartime - wanting to fly a plane. If he impersonated a German American and joined the U.S. Air Force, I could easily see Dengler being the grown-up Jim Graham. The instant he's in the rain-forest, Dieter takes charge - building makeshift shelters and foraging for food and water. We're not really given any explanation for this unusual skill or hardiness, just as we know little about Dieter's life outside, beyond a few reminiscences to fellow POWs (my explanation is a childhood in Soochow with Jim Malkovich's Basie.)

While shot beautifully in lush jungles, featuring several terrific actors (Bale is great as usual, as are Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies), it ultimately feels rather empty. Partly this is because Dieter never seems to fail at anything until near the end of the film. Looking for food? There it is. Need to avoid the guards? They look the other way. It ruins all sense of tension or risk. The director commented on Dieter's illogical optimism being his greatest asset, but given how seldom he fails, this optimism seems to be mere logic.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Minireview: Seven Pounds

An overlong, meandering tale of guilt and sacrifice. I think the story itself could have been told with more power via a linear, compact story-line, but this unusual technique does manage to distract from some of the larger plot-holes. Will Smith's emotional distance also moves us away from sentimentality - one scene near the beginning works well to confuse us as to his true character. The air of mystery is intriguing, but I doubt it work on a second viewing. Rosario Dawson was great, providing all the heart, while Barry Pepper and Woody Harrelson are underused.

In the end, it all feels a bit empty - it's hard to understand our odd, emotionless protagonist, much less his motivations for what he does. The Christological theme was interesting, but given where the film ends up, unnecessary and incorrect. The whole film is rather pretentious, in retrospect.

2.5/5 stars

Hannah Long

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Best of March/April 2014


The Iron Giant - Brad Bird's first feature film, a creative, innovative story about a boy and his alien robot pal. For an animated movie, it's very visually interesting. While featuring some rather ham-fisted political commentary, it also delves into surprising moral depths, much like his later film The Incredibles, and does avoid caricaturing its bad guys (just).

Ordet - a strange, entrancing German movie from 1955. An instant favorite, but difficult to summarize. Basically, it's about the spiritual journey of a small farming family in the 1920's, and an intriguing representation of rational, intellectual religion versus irrational, powerful faith (though it's not quite that simple). My review.

Sherlock Holmes - Immensely theatrical, unpredictable, and charming, Jeremy Brett isn't really my image of Holmes. To be fair though, neither is Benedict Cumberbatch's petulant boy-sleuth, or Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron-Man-With-A-British-Accent riff, enjoyable as they are. Brett himself recommended Clive Merrison's radio adaptations and I'd have to agree. All that said, Brett creates a dark, moody man that is a terrific contribution to the canon of on-screen Holmeses. He's nicely balanced by his two Watsons, light-hearted David Burke and levelheaded Edward Hardwicke. Much like Poirot or Morse, this showcased the Who's Who in British acting, including Ciaran Hinds, Jude Law(!), Hugh Bonneville, Robert Hardy, Antony ValentineJames PurefoyPeter Vaughan I totally feel like a sexist, but there were women too. Anyway, it amounts to one of the monuments of British detective TV, unlikely to ever be surpassed as the most authentic adaptation of Conan Doyle's character.

Endeavour - As a big fan of Inspector Morse, I've tremendously enjoyed this prequel/reboot series, but at this point, it has begun to run entirely on its own steam. How does it perform? Quite well, for the most part. After a while, its slow pace feels a little fatiguing, but the great performances and chemistry between the two leads, Shaun Evans as Morse and Roger Allam as Thursday, salvage even the cornier moments. On the other hand, it ends on a high, with an episode focusing on this relationship. Bring on the third season. My reviews: Trove, Nocturne, Sway, and Neverland.

Hannah Long