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Two Hours of Outtakes
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.
Hell is Other People
"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.
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Oh! What a Lovely War
"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.
Game of Thrones (2011)
The Art of the Cliffhanger
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)
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.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
A Parody with No Jokes
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
"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.
Who's the Hero?
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.
The Great Raid (2005)
A 133 Minute Dramatic Re-Enactment
"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?
Starship Troopers (1997)
They'll Keep Fighting, and They'll Win!
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.
Bring on the Empty Horses
This is Hollywood History at its best. It has nothing to do with the real Crimean War, the Battle of Balaclava, or the Charge of the Light Brigade. It has everything to do with Errol Flynn, Olivia deHavilland, Michael Curtiz, and Max Steiner. Basically, this is a quintessential Warner Bros. adventure film of 1936, one of the best of the breed.
The story starts in Southern California -- or rather, Northern India -- on the outskirts of the British Empire. This setting had been picked up and dusted off after 1935's "Lives of a Bengal Lancer", and would be recreated for "Gunga Din" a few years later, with the same locations and similar plots. Flynn leads a company of British lancers in skirmishes with the local rajah, the villainous Surat Khan -- you can tell he's the villain because of his evil goatee -- and a betrayal and a massacre leads to a mission of vengeance, which reaches its climax in Tennyson's Valley of Death in the Crimea.
Opposite Flynn is, naturally, Olivia deHavilland, without whom Flynn would be lost. Patric Knowles, who played Will Scarlett in Flynn's "Adventures of Robin Hood", is Flynn's brother; David Niven is his sidekick; and Henry Stephenson, Donald Crisp, and Nigel Bruce are the top brass. Director Michael Curtiz brings out another energetic performance from Flynn, although his character here lacks the depths of the heroes of "Captain Blood" or "The Dawn Patrol". Max Steiner's score complements the action perfectly.
"The Charge of the Light Brigade" is quite an epic production, and notorious for the number of horses killed in the battle scenes. That knowledge puts a bit of a damper on the excitement, but it also led to the safety restrictions in place today, banning trip-wires and ensuring the well-being of animals in movies; so, ultimately a good thing. No such measures were ever taken to protect history from the ravages of Hollywood screenwriters: Surat Khan and the country of Suristan never existed, nor did Flynn's 27th Lancers, and although there was indeed a charge at Balaklava, it didn't happen for the reasons depicted in this film. But Flynn and Curtiz didn't care, and neither should the audience.
The Sea Hawk (1940)
Flynn Saves England Single-Handed
Errol Flynn's greatest swashbuckling triumph will always be "Captain Blood" -- though "The Adventures of Robin Hood" certainly gets high marks as well. "The Sea Hawk", however, is only one or two points behind them; in some ways it's even better.
Flynn stars as Geoffrey Thorpe, an English privateer in the mold of Sir Francis Drake. On a perilous mission to the steamy jungles of Panama he is betrayed and captured by the Spanish, and is chained to the oars of a Spanish galley. He must escape in time to warn Queen Elizabeth of the impending invasion -- known to history as the Armada -- and defeat the traitor in her court.
The scenes in Panama render the jungle with lurid intensity -- the heat, humidity, and general hardship would be recreated a few years later in "Objective Burma" -- while the scenes aboard the galley outdo "Ben Hur". Michael Curtiz is one of the most overlooked and underestimated directors of Hollywood history, even though he made some of its greatest movies: combined with Erich Wolfgang Korngold's music, he produces moments of almost operatic passion and energy; romantic and energetic, they capture the grand spirit of adventure in a way that the more realistic films of later decades could never hope to emulate.
There are two minor shortcomings to "The Sea Hawk". First is the replacement of Olivia deHavilland, Flynn's customary costar, with Brenda Marshall. While Marshall is by no means a bad actress, the pairing lacks the chemistry of Errol and Olivia. Second, the villain is played not by Basil Rathbone, Flynn's nemesis of two prior films, but by Henry Daniell. He's a sneering, slimy villain -- Christopher Guest's six- fingered man in "Princess Bride" was an homage -- but he falls short of matching Flynn's charisma. Making up for these flaws are appearances by Warner Bros. regulars Donald Crisp and Claude Rains, and a memorable performance by Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth.
The Queen's final speech to rally her troops was a bold piece of propaganda in 1940, and the imminent threat of the Spanish Armada looms on the horizon like the Battle of Britain. Flynn, Curtiz, and Warner Bros. would go on to make more openly patriotic war films, but perhaps none as classic -- except, of course, "Casablanca".
The Dawn Patrol (1938)
"Here's to the Next Man that Dies..."
"The Dawn Patrol" came out at a strange time: a few years later and it would have been a product of Warner Bros' propaganda department, matching a vicious enemy against selfless heroes. But in 1938 war was still a long way from Hollywood, so instead we get one of the last great anti-war films of the Golden Age.
The cast, as usual, is superlative. Errol Flynn and David Niven are friends and drinking buddies (in real life as well as on screen) in the Royal Flying Corps, straining against the strict discipline of their commanding officer, Basil Rathbone. Rathbone gets a different sort of role: rather than the sneering villain, he portrays a sympathetic character torn apart by his duty to his superiors and his responsibility to the men he commands. In fact, the same dramatic arc afflicts Flynn and Niven in time, and the three great actors turn in some of the best performances of their careers.
The flying scenes of "Dawn Patrol" lack the scale of "Hell's Angels" or "Wings", and a lot of scenes were lifted directly from a 1930 film of the same name, directed by Howard Hawks. The California scenery distracts a little from the verisimilitude, but the squadrons of vintage Nieuport 28's and other aircraft should make up for any shortcomings in the locations. The meat of the story takes place on the ground -- unlike in "Hell's Angels" -- so the action scenes in the air serve more as punctuation marks.
Like previous First World War movies, "Dawn Patrol" portrays the cynicism and fatalism of the fighter pilots. They drink a toast to "the next man that dies", sing boisterous songs to bury their grief, and even welcome an enemy captive into their mess -- who cares whose side he's on, the war's over for him, so let's get drunk. There's a lot of manly horseplay and fooling around, and probably a bottle of brandy in every scene, making for a heck of a drinking game. The awful truth of the war is hammered home in scenes of youthful recruits arriving fresh from their public schools, brimming with childish bravado, ready for a great adventure -- and totally ignorant of the fate that awaits them.
Captain Blood (1935)
Errol Flynn: Thief, Pirate...Irish?
"Captain Blood" was Flynn's first starring role, and it's also his most exuberant and energetic performance. Despite whatever anxiety he might have suffered offstage -- apparently requiring several scenes to be re- shot -- the end result is one of the most spirited swashbucklers ever made, unsurpassed in almost eighty years.
Flynn plays an Irish doctor with a Tasmanian accent who, in 1685, gets caught up in the Glorious Rebellion against James II of England, and carted off to Jamaica as a slave. There he's bought by the lovely Olivia deHavilland, the cruel governor's young niece. Eventually he escapes, with the rest of the slaves -- but not before he and Olivia fall in love.
Flynn's life of piracy comes to us mostly via montage, cutting out most of the middle third of Rafael Sabatini's novel. A doomed partnership with Basil Rathbone (sporting a magnificently fake French accent) climaxes with a terrific duel on the beach, and reunites the starcrossed lovers in time for a thunderous sea-battle. A handful of shots of the great sailing ships were lifted from older silent films -- I'd love to see the movies that produced that sort of spectacle!
Michael Curtiz began his partnership with Flynn with this movie, and I think the animosity between the two was responsible for much of Flynn's rowdy, passionate screen persona. He preferred working with Raoul Walsh, but their collaborations never came up with anything quite as memorable. Curtiz, as usual, creates a beautiful picture, with terrific sets, expressive shadows, and fluid camera-work -- the style is so perfect that you might not even notice how brilliant it is, because every shot and every scene is so intuitively correct. The music, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, set the high standard for classic Hollywood adventure films that every subsequent composer has tried to live up to.
In short, this movie has everything you'd ever want from an old- fashioned action film: romance, heroics, sword fights, pitched battles, humor and villainy.
Battle of Britain (1969)
And Starring Herman Goering as Himself...
Despite what the title suggests, this is not really a film about the Battle of Britain. While it follows the basic plot of the Battle, and features various public-domain characters like Hugh Dowding and Adolf Hitler, it's primarily a series of expensive air battles strung together with expository dialogue. If you like that sort of thing, it's a fine movie.
The fleet of vintage aircraft assembled for the picture is impressive, even though armchair historians will happily point out the sundry inaccuracies: for example, all the German aircraft in the film are actually Spanish Air Force planes fitted with British Rolls-Royce engines -- the same ones the British Spitfires and Hurricanes had. Many of the Spitfires are later marques, and there are several types absent from the German air force. (Displaying an appalling lack of foresight, most air forces scrapped their fighters and bombers at the end of the war so they could start building jets instead, causing endless frustration for future generations of film-makers.) Despite all that, this is one of the few movies to get anywhere near the reality of 1940 with its skies full of planes.
The non-flying scenes act as a tribute to the Royal Air Force and, to a lesser extent, the people of England who lived through the Blitz. A-list actors like Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, and Christopher Plummer play the stalwart heroes with a minimum of characterization that ensures they will remain largely symbolic: they're figureheads rather than fictional characters. On the one hand this robs the film of human interest; on the other hand, it also avoids distracting the audience with unnecessary melodrama.
The air battles are vividly choreographed and set to stirring martial music, mostly by Ron Goodwin, but with a cameo from Sir William Walton for the climax. Compared to "Tora! Tora! Tora!" -- 1970's cinematic assault on Pearl Harbor -- "The Battle of Britain" is slightly less elaborate but ultimately more satisfying. It's easier to make an exciting action movie when the good guys win, after all.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Pearl Harbor Gets Bombed, Again
By now Pearl Harbor has been assaulted so many times on film that historians have lost count. Images fabricated for the movies have been presented on the news as the real thing. Documentaries cheerfully masquerade reenactments of the attack as original footage, and a score of famous actors have participated in the defense.
"Tora! Tora! Tora!" aims for honesty and verisimilitude at the expense of drama, which is perhaps a noble goal. The producers intentionally left out the big-name stars and fictional characters and subplots of "From Here to Eternity", instead focusing on the real historical figures: Japanese Admirals Yamamoto and Nagumo, and various American generals and so on. Their names pop up on screen in case you're not already familiar with them. Like a lot of epic war films of the time, it's not about the characters.
And that would be tolerable if the movie wasn't so execrably boring for the first half. You find yourself eagerly anticipating the destruction of the American fleet just so that you can see something happen. The interminable build-up to the Day of Infamy divides its time between both sides: in Hawaii and Washington an endless parade of gray-haired officers and politicians discuss plans and strategies, while the Japanese train and prepare for the attack. The Japanese segments are better, the characters more sympathetic, and the script more nuanced, with a gradual build-up of tension abetted by Jerry Goldsmith's understated score.
It's not every movie that gets you rooting for the wrong team through sheer incompetence. While it's not a bad movie, the only reason to watch it is for the airplanes and the spectacularly staged climax. Pearl Harbor might have been an infamous defeat for the USA, but it was a rousing success for the Empire of Japan -- unfortunately, it's the latter feeling that comes across the clearest.
Red Tails (2012)
Is that you, Biggles?
A few years ago I realized that the ongoing revolutions in computer- generated imagery would allow Hollywood to come up with all kinds of exciting historical movies, because CGI could create the planes, ships, and locations that had always been prohibitively expensive. I thought it would be great to be able to see skies full of WWII aircraft, faithfully rendered in every detail on someone's computer.
After "Flyboys", "Pearl Harbor", and now "Red Tails", I've changed my mind. Without the real thing, we may as well be watching glorified cartoons. The planes in these movies are not real: while they may look accurate, they do not move like the real things, and we do not get the same joy and excitement from watching them fly across our screens. The shots and angles chosen to showcase these CGI creations betray their artificiality; we know that what we're seeing is impossible, so we can't believe it. The most satisfying moments of "Red Tails", then, were the scenes on the ground that showed genuine aircraft -- or at least full-size mock-ups.
"Red Tails" is cartoonish in other ways. Each character gets a defining trait to which he is pretty much limited. There's the dashing womanizer, the religious one, the smart aleck, the rookie, and so on. We've all seen them a hundred times before. Adhering closely to pulp tradition, there's also an enemy ace posing as the film's villain. The heroes keep running in to him, and of course their planes all have unique markings so they can tell each other apart. There's a brief romantic entanglement among some other predictable story arcs as the Red Tails fight their way across Europe. This sort of simple comic book movie isn't by definition a bad thing, unless you were hoping for a little more substance and history.
I'm actually a little pleased that the story of the Tuskegee Airmen got turned into pulp. The heroes' race is a constant issue in the film, as they face discrimination from other American aircrews as well as local Italians and the war department back home; however, the film is essentially a textbook adventure with plenty of battles and explosions. An earnest message movie it certainly is not. Also -- and this is quite rare for Hollywood -- this film lacks a white character in a major role. Movies like "Glory", "Windtalkers", and "Go For Broke" always put a white man up front to attract bigger audiences. "Red Tails" makes no such concession.
As pulp it's not a bad flick. As history it barely scratches the surface. For a fan of vintage aircraft and old war movies about fighter pilots, the superficial and weightless CGI takes all the fun out it.
Rio Bravo (1959)
The Rollin' Rio Bravo Rolls Along, and Along, and Along...
The Wikipedia entry for this film declares it a masterpiece. It's certainly a classic: Howard Hawks directed, John Wayne starred, Dmitri Tiomkin wrote the music, and Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep) wrote the script. It delivers a classic Western scenario: a sheriff and his sidekicks facing down a town full of villainous henchmen while they await the arrival of a federal marshal. Quentin Tarrantino claims it's his favorite movie; John Carpenter likes it too, and his "Assault on Precinct 13" is just one of the films influenced by "Rio Bravo".
John Wayne stars as the sheriff, John T. Chance, and his trusty Winchester costars. There's not much that can rile Chance, perhaps because Wayne had reached a point in his career when he wasn't expected to act. Dean Martin plays Dude (not THE Dude), a recovering drunkard, crooner, and former deputy. Ricky Nelson, who takes his emotive cues from Wayne, plays a young gunslinger (perhaps descended from Cherry Valance of "Red River") along for the ride. Walter Brennan plays himself, and Angie Dickenson plays a neurotic young woman who falls for Chance.
There are occasional gunfights, and an explosive climax, most of which are incidental to the plot. The movie is so relaxed in its pacing, and the lead performances are so restrained, that there is hardly any real suspense or tension. The bad guys who pop up now and then fail to threaten our heroes, and they are quickly despatched. The main villain doesn't make much of an impact. On its surface, "Rio Bravo" is hardly comparable to other Western Classics like "The Gunfighter" or "High Noon". What makes the movie stand out, and perhaps what gives it classic status, is the easy rapport of its characters and the bantering dialogue that was Hawks' trademark. It was apparently a political response to "High Noon" -- a similar story told the "right" way -- but the movie is so chilled out that it's almost impossible to read any sort of political subtext into it. It's just a fun movie.
Narrated to Death
The problem starts with the title. Before the film even begins, you know what's going to eventually happen: Jesse James will be killed by Robert Ford. Since that's a historical fact anyway I'll let it pass. The real problem is what the title represents. This is not a film about showing you things, with images and dialogue; rather, this film will simply tell you things for the next two and a half hours, thanks to our trusty narrator.
We learn several useful facts: first, that Jesse James is missing part of the middle finger on his left hand. We can see this plainly, but I guess the narration helps. Next we are told that an affliction of the eyelids causes him to blink frequently. This is an odd one, since Brad Pitt (who plays James) doesn't blink all that often. In a later scene we are told that James suffers from paranoid delusions. To be honest, I had worked that out for myself. Later still we are shown a scene in which Robert Ford lies restlessly in a bed while Jesse sleeps nearby, and it's clear from the way the scene is filmed that Robert is thinking about grabbing the gun off the bedside table and shooting Jesse. In case you weren't paying attention, the narrator tells you this as well. Thanks anyway. Mary Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel appear in the credits, but their dialogue was replaced by more narration.
When the credits finally rolled I was left bewildered. The movie is 160 minutes long. Couldn't the narrator have told me everything I needed to know in a fraction of the time? Maybe fifteen, twenty minutes, allowing a little room for a train robbery and some shooting and riding. In fact, let's skip all that visual claptrap and just let the narrator deliver his eulogy while we stare at a black screen. The funereal dirge courtesy of Nick Cave is optional. In the end, Jesse James wasn't assassinated: he was narrated to death.
The Thing from Another World (1951)
A Tear-Jerking Tragedy
This is a poignant film about the tragic consequences of first contact with alien life. The soldiers and scientists at a remote arctic base are wholly unprepared for their meeting with the alien life-form, and the results are predictably violent. Why was the alien here? What were its motives, its thoughts, its feelings? No one knows, since it is under attack from the moment it is thawed from a block of ice -- in fact, even before that, when the soldiers blow up its flying saucer.
As I watched the film, I wondered if I was misreading it. Perhaps Howard Hawks intended the movie as a thriller, about a menacing, rampaging monster. However, that is clearly not the case. The alien is quite harmless until provoked, and everything it does is in self-defense. Its ship is destroyed, it is shot at, attacked by huskies, burned and electrocuted. Poor thing. Obviously the film is a not-so-subtle commentary on reactionary United States politics and cowboy diplomacy. The soldiers shoot first and ask questions later, with disastrous effects.
Not as bad as it's cut out to be.
The Phantom Menace has several dramatic challenges from the start: It needs to re-introduce a universe that the audience already knows about; it needs to establish younger versions of familiar characters; it has to set up the larger story that will be played out in the sequels; and most importantly it has to tell a good, entertaining story on its own. It is marginally successful, and in fact most of its flaws come from trying to simplify things too much.
It gets off to a pretty good start, with the small planet Naboo being invaded by the Trade Federation battleships. Right away we have a wide, space opera canvas and a tense situation that makes the scale smaller and easier to digest. Some people have whined about the "taxation of trade routes" being a mundane sort of conflict, but they're forgetting history: remember "No taxation without representation"? Real- world wars have been fought over less exciting issues. Phantom Menace quickly gets past the specifics and into the adventure anyway, so it hardly matters. There are many complications on the way to the climax, including an exciting futuristic chariot race straight out of Ben Hur, and some subtle political machinations in the galactic senate. The final battle is spectacular, on the ground and in space, wrapping up with a dramatic lightsaber duel.
The movie struggles a little trying to find a protagonist. Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon Jinn is more of a mentor/father figure, and Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan Kenobi is absent for the second act, so neither one quite measures up; similarly, young Anakin Skywalker is only introduced halfway through. Both Neeson and McGregor do good jobs, even if their characters are very simple, and their presence really carries the whole show. The other lead actors are weaker: Natalie Portman is disappointingly bland as the queen of Naboo, and Jake Lloyd (Anakin) is a typical child actor. Most of the other characters are CGI. The real problem is that the story being told is not a personal one -- unlike the hero's quest of Luke Skywalker -- so each character ends up just serving the plot.
Visually I think Phantom Menace is the best of the series. It uses digital effects, but it's not overwhelmed by CGI like the later movies. The sets and locations are real, and many of the spaceships are actual models. We get the best of both worlds: the broad scope of CGI and the reality of practical effects. The design is a big reverse from the classic films, substituting the gritty, lived-in look for a more polished, Art Deco quality. This makes sense, since the prequels are meant to take place in the galaxy's Golden Age, before the "dark times". The ships, costumes, and creatures are all consistent with the basic style of the earlier movies.
I mentioned oversimplification before. More than any other Star Wars movie, this one seems to have been written for children, maybe because one of its main characters is only ten years old. This makes sense, although it's at odds with Episodes II and III, which were both darker. Ultimately the story doesn't really do much, and it ends up feeling like a frivolous adventure -- it's fun, but it could have been a lot more. The less said about Jar-Jar Binks the better.
Outer Space Fairy Tales
Return of the Jedi is a spectacular climax to the Star Wars series. It builds on the previous two movies, but it's bigger, brighter, and more colourful. There's the explosive final battle against the evil Empire as well as the resolution of the more personal conflict between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. However, it's not quite a tour-de-force: there are some cumbersome info dumps, which slacken the film's pace, and the direction and photography are a little too simple. Worse is the treatment of the supporting characters, since just about everyone besides Luke and Vader get reduced to minor roles.
The action scenes are definitely the movie's greatest strength. In the first act our heroes rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, with both a classic Ray Harryhausen monster fight and an all-out brawl on Jabba's sail barge. The speeder bike chase on Endor is a breathtaking highlight, filmed entirely with models and steady-cams; it's better than Episode I's pod race and just about outdoes the first movie's classic trench run. The Battle of Endor itself is an amazing accomplishment, and the space dogfights went unmatched for the next twenty years. Luke and Vader's lightsaber duel is more emotional than technical, but satisfying anyway.
The exposition, though, is really a problem. There are two kinds of scenes in Jedi: action set pieces and info dumps. Luke visits Dagobah again so that Yoda can confirm that Vader is, in fact, Luke's Father; Luke then gets the full story from Ben Kenobi's ghost. There's also a pause for Luke to reveal to Leia that they're brother and sister, which only functions to write off the romantic triangle of the previous film. Many of the scenes with the Emperor are talky and static. This all feels like the perfunctory tying-up of loose ends, which could have been handled in a more exciting and dynamic way.
The script closely follows the story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, to the exclusion of Han, Leia, Lando, and the others. George Lucas has said that the entire six-part series is really about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, and Return of the Jedi bears that out. Their conflict is the solid emotional centrepiece of the film, coming close to its mythic, Oedipal roots. The final triumph of both the Rebellion and the Light side of the Force is a very satisfying moment; it's good to see the good guys win big. If only the other characters had more to do.
The Star Wars movies have always had great design, effects, and music, and Jedi is no different. The themes are strongest in this one: the cold, mechanical quality of the Empire is emphasised by the skeletal image of the new Death Star, which matches Vader's scarred face and the Emperor himself. The music is suitably sinister. The Rebels, on the other hand, are colourfully democratic: there are many different alien races and different types of starship in their fleet, and the costumes are mainly earthy greens, browns, and reds. The Ewok planet, filmed in the redwood forests of California, is also terrific. For me that's the best part of the movie, and the series as a whole. The ultimate victory over the totalitarian Empire is an act of ordinary people (and Ewoks), rather than superhuman heroes.
Robin Hood (1991)
A Gritty Swashbuckler?
This is an unfairly overlooked version of the Robin Hood story, with the misfortune of coming out in the same year as the bloated Kevin Costner film. What makes this movie work -- and what makes it unusual -- is that it combines gritty, dirty medieval settings with charm, wit, and the feel of a great swashbuckler.
More so than any other Robin Hood film, this one delivers a degree of realism. The costumes are accurate. The Norman barons are played by Jeroen Krabbe and Jurgen Prochnow, who are Dutch and German respectively; this gives them accents to distinguish them from the English Saxons. They have also been renamed: instead of the usual Sir Guy of Gisborne or Sheriff of Nottingham, they are Roger Daguerre and Miles Folcanet. Robin Hood also gets a minor retool, to Robert Hode; he adopts his more familiar name as his outlaw nom de guerre. The conflict between the Norman ruling class and the Saxon peasantry helps to drive the plot, and the political aspect thankfully never sinks to good- versus-evil simplicity. Robin in this movie is not a loyal supporter of King Richard, as is normal -- instead King Richard never even appears, and Robin is simply rebelling against the oppressive local barons.
So, visually this movie is dark and dirty, as you'd expect in a medieval movie from 1991. But the tone is something completely different. When Robin and Will Scarlett escape the castle after being outlawed, you'd think they were having the time of their lives. (Some of these early escapades reminded me of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".) Robin wears a big grin for many of the action scenes, which are filmed with a moderate dose of slapstick and plenty of energy. Robin seems to be in it purely for the adventure; in fact, it is Will Scarlett and others who clue him in to the injustices going on. Patrick Bergen is an odd choice for Robin, being neither English nor particularly well-known, but he makes the role a lot of fun to watch.
This is certainly not the biggest or most expensive version of the story, being outspent by Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, and now Russell Crowe. However, it's probably the best.
I was biased against this show for a long time without ever having seen more than a few minutes of it. What I saw back in 2001 seemed too familiar and formulaic, a rehash of Star Trek: Voyager with new costumes and flashier special effects. I was worried about the concept too: not for the usual reasons Trekkers cite, but because the idea of a prequel felt like a step backwards to a more comfortable, modern (i.e. violent and sexist) style of storytelling. Finally watching the show on DVD, I've changed my mind entirely.
Although it does retreat from the perfect Utopian future we got to know on Next Gen, DS9 and Voyager, with all of its miraculous technology, the actual result is that it deals more directly with Star Trek's long-held ideals. Humanity, in its first trips out into the larger galaxy, faces more challenges and obstacles, and we get to see the formation of the principles on which the Federation was founded. The ethics of Trek are in full effect, and much more explicitly stated than in earlier series.
The cast is actually quite good, which is something else I was worried about. Jolene Blalock as the Vulcan T'Pol and Connor Trinneer as the very human Trip Tucker are standouts; Blalock especially does a good job building on Leonard Nimoy's famous performance as Spock: you can actually see her struggling to control her emotions at times, and her sly humor makes for some of the best comedy the franchise has known. The only dud is Travis Mayweather, the helmsman, a cipher of a character played by a barely competent actor. The series is genuinely more character-driven than the other Trek shows, which means that a typical episode usually deals with how a particular character develops as a result of the adventure, rather than simply with the adventure itself. Most surprising to me was Hoshi Sato, the communications officer who grows considerably in the first few episodes.
The writing generally improves through Season Two; a few episodes even introduce a little more continuity to the usual stand-alone plots. Season Three takes our heroes in a different direction, traveling into an unexplored area of space to seek out and destroy an alien weapon before it can be used against Earth. This was perhaps Star Trek's response to current events of the last decade: there are definitely allusions to the War on Terror and enhanced interrogation techniques. It's a much darker subject than Trek has ever done before, and it almost works. In Season Four the writers finally conceded to the hardcore fans' cries for more "prequel" shows, so we get a lot of episodes that do nothing but resolve minor discrepancies in Trek canon, like how the Klingons got their foreheads. Lots of people say that this is where "Enterprise" finally found its feet, but I think it lost its way, along with most of its characters. That's too bad, and it's too bad the show was canceled before it could go any further.
Chernobyl and Perestroika, but no Berlin Wall?
This is the second Trek movie by Nicholas Meyer, fan-favorite writer and director of "The Wrath of Khan". It has the same strengths: a plot based firmly in pulp history, some good action scenes, and a fairly serious tone. It also shares the same weaknesses: dull direction and photography, rampant militarism, and clichéd dialogue.
Kudos to the writers and producers and whoever for adding the political allegory. The Klingon Empire is collapsing due to a disaster of some sort, and it presents the Federation with a perfect opportunity, either to finally defeat their old enemies, or to turn over a new leaf and make friends. If you've seen The Next Generation, you'll know the outcome.
The problem is that this is all rather tawdry. It turns out that the 23rd century is a lot like the present day, with politicians and military types and conferences everywhere you look. Remember the days when the Enterprise explored space and encountered exciting new alien life forms? None of that here. This is a much more old-fashioned adventure, with Kirk and Bones framed for assassinating the Klingon leader and shipped off to a prison planet while Spock and the gang try to solve the mystery of exactly what the heck happened.
The middle third of the film moves slowly. The prison is full of aliens but otherwise a bit drab. The villain is not revealed as such until late, and doesn't get developed at all. The mystery is never as convincing as it should be because it always seems like Spock already has all the answers -- a technique Nicholas Meyer learned from old Sherlock Holmes films, though not from the genuine Holmes stories. Those stories are quoted along with an awful lot of Shakespeare; the Klingon in charge of the prison lifts his intro speech direct from "Bridge on the River Kwai". The climax is pretty sharp, with a decent space battle. (Actually, the battle consists almost entirely of the Enterprise getting repeatedly shot at by a Klingon ship while Christopher Plummer spits out random Shakespearean one-liners; it's a wonder the scene works at all).
So it's not a bad film, it just feels a little small. Galactic politics don't carry enough weight to make a really good movie, and there's not enough fun or adventure in the rest of the story. As usual, the unwieldy plot tends to crowd the characters out of the film, even though this, the last movie with the original crew, is where we really want to see each of our heroes get a good send-off.