Friday, 31 March 2017

Auschwitz (2011)

Uwe Boll is best known for his schlocky adaptations of video games, several of which I like far more than they deserve.  He is not, however, a film-maker known for his subtlety, judgment or taste.  So when he announced his intention to make a film about the infamous Nazi extermination camp, it was hardly a surprise (except possibly to Boll) that the news was received with something less than enthusiasm.

The movie itself begins with Boll talking directly to the camera and explaining his reasons for making the film.  In essence, these are that he does not think previous films have properly communicated the horrors of the Holocaust; because young people today (particularly German youths) are ignorant of what occurred; and because genocides are still taking place in the modern world.  All of which are admirable goals, but as the confused and tedious melange which follows so amply demonstrates, he's not the film-maker to achieve them.

Boll's intro is followed by a series of interviews with teenagers, asking them what they know about Auschwitz and the Holocaust - which in most cases can be summed up as 'not much', though a few show glimmers of knowing more - then some archive images of the actual camps, before we head into the 30-40 minute section of scripted film that is the core of the movie.

This section shows two groups of prisoners arriving at Auschwitz, being processed, and then sent to die in the 'showers'.  Afterward, their bodies and belongings are stripped of valuables - gold fillings are pulled out with pliers, hair is shaved for wigs, jewelry is confiscated, and so on.  At the end, two guards discuss the how their comrades are coping with the psychological pressures of being mass executioners, as well as their own plans for escape if the Soviet Army reaches the camp.  In the hands of a skilled writer and director, this work could probably be quite stark and powerful.  In Boll's, it is just dull.

The movie closes with another long section of interviews, and a final statement from Boll that is more or less a repeat of his intro.  And then, after 70 minutes that feel a lot longer, it finally ends.

There's merit in making a film that unflinchingly portrays the banality of Nazi evil, but it requires more talent than Boll possesses to successfully tackle such a challenge.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Wire, Season 3 (2004)

Pretty much the only reason this is a "Qualified" recommendation is because you probably need to have seen the first two seasons of The Wire in order to get the most impact out of this season.  If you have seen those first two seasons, then you can go straight to a full recommendation, because this is an exceptionally well put-together show.  The acting is solid, the characters are rich and complex, and the scripts are tight as a drum.  There are no lazy "idiot ball" moments here.  When characters mess up - and they do, often - it's for plausible, in-character reasons: they've got a pre-established weakness or blind spot, or they're acting on incorrect information or deductions.  If only more writing - be it for TV, the big screen, or on the page - was as rigorous.

This season sees intense political pressure on the Baltimore Police Department to bring down crime numbers "by any means necessary".  The politicians are probably expecting some creative reclassification of cases and a few more police brutality complaints.  They get both of those things, but they've underestimated just how creative some senior officers can be, which may well cause the whole initiative to blow up in their face.

At the same time, Lieutenant Daniels and his team are trying to make cases against violent, drugs-related offenders: a brief which becomes a lot more urgent when notorious kingpin Avon Barksdale is released from prison and destabilizes what had been a relatively quiet time - in terms of murders, at least - in the narcotics industry.

Not that Barksdale is free of troubles of his own: his right hand man Stringer Bell has led the organisation in a different direction while Avon was incarcerated, and there are young up and comers on the street who are pushing into the gap that's been left.

The Wire is top notch stuff.

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Loved Ones (2009)

Brent's out for a driving lesson with his dad when a bloodied man suddenly appears in the road.  Swerving to avoid the guy, Brent hits a tree and his father is killed.

Six months later, both Brent and his mother are still deeply affected by the accident.  Brent's coping methods - cutting himself with a razor blade and engaging in dangerous solo rock-climbing stunts - aren't exactly the healthiest of options, but thanks to the care and attention of his girlfriend Holly he is slowly becoming more or less functional.  The two are planning to attend the end of school dance together.

Unfortunately, Brent never makes it to the dance.  He's drugged and dragged off instead, and awakes to find himself in a much more macabre and deadly situation ...

The Loved Ones has been described as a "slasher romance", and - in the decidedly off-colour way you might expect of such a combination - it kind of is.  It's also a very black comedy, with sound effects and visual cues used to generate a lot of slightly nervous laughter.  It's deftly directed all round, in fact: nicely shot, and cleverly edited.  I like the way that it implies a lot of terrible things without directly showing them.  They probably did it this way at least partly to save money on effects, as this is a small budget Australian film, but they've made a virtue out of necessity in the process.

The cast is also really good - especially Robin McLeavy's demented little turn.

This is decidedly gruesome, twisted fun, but fun nonetheless.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Tudors, Season 2 (2008)

I generally avoid spoilers in my reviews, but The Tudors is - admittedly rather loosely - based on actual events that occurred nearly five hundred years ago, and which you may well have learned about at school or college, so I'm going to be a bit less circumspect than normal.  So if you don't know about Henry VIII and you want to watch the show unspoiled, then you should stop reading at the end of this paragraph: because my review for you is "if you don't mind a lot of sex and violence, and some not every nice things happening, then The Tudors is worth seeing for its strong performances and lavish costumes".

Still here?

Right, then I assume you know all about the six wives business and Henry's break with the Pope which led to the formation of the Church of England.  And if you didn't, well, you only have yourself to blame for continuing to read.

Season two of The Tudors begins with the final stages of Henry's quarrel with the Pontiff, as the English King seeks to annul his marriage by any means necessary so he can wed Anne Boleyn.  Anne (brilliantly portrayed by Natalie Dormer) is much younger than his first wife, and Henry believes she will give him the male heir he so desperately desires.  Opposing the breach with Rome becomes steadily more and more dangerous as Henry's patience wears thin with those who do not support his agenda, but Anne's apparent triumph comes with huge risks.  If she fails to provide the son that Henry demands, her fall from grace will be swift and final.  The question of the heir forms the focus of the second half of the season, as allies and enemies within the court jockey for position and intrigue either for or against Anne's interests.  And as you either know, or can guess from the fact that Henry has four more wives to get through yet, Anne isn't going to get out of this season alive.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Maniac (2012)

Frodo's a weirdo loner who's also a serial killer.  And we see a lot of the film as if we were him, with the camera as his eyes.

That's pretty much the whole pitch - and whole content - of this film.  Elijah Wood is Frank Zito, a guy who restores mannequins for a job and who murders and scalps women for a sexual thrill.  I mean yes, we get some backstory about why he (believes he) has this compulsion - in a not exactly stunning display of originality, it's Oedipal - but that doesn't exactly do a lot to extend the formula of the film.  It's pretty much stalk a woman, kill and scalp her, dress up a mannequin to "be" her, have a flashback about mommy, and then repeat.

Even the arrival of Annie - a vivacious photographer with whom Frank is immediately infatuated - doesn't do much to change things up.  Frank still stalks and kills other women, even if he manages to act something approximating normal while in Annie's presence.  The only real evolution therefore is that we now switch to waiting for the other shoe to drop and for Annie to become the movie's Final Girl.

I wish I could say that things get more interesting when that shoe does drop, but frankly they just get sillier.

One for gore hounds only.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Archer, Season 3 (2011)

Season 3 of this off-colour spy spoof starts with Sterling Archer on a South Pacific bender of booze, women and becoming a Pirate King, and ends when he and the rest of the ISIS agency take part in a spacefaring mission that turns Moonraker up to 11  There are plenty of over the top hi-jinks in between those book ends, of course, including Burt Reynolds, cyborgs, and the Yakuza.  Not all at the same time, alas, but the show has several more seasons to run, so we can hope.

I've discussed the crazy, messed-up nature of this show in my reviews of the previous seasons, so I won't go over that in detail again.  Instead I wanted to call out something I really like about show, which is that no matter how silly it is - and it can be very silly - it remains internally consistent within its own events.  So it's perfectly okay to have both functional cyborgs and ubiquitous cell phones while the USSR still exists and World War 1 veterans appear to be in their 70s, but once the show establishes something about a character, it sticks to it.  Stuff that seems like a throwaway gag when introduced will be retained and referenced later.  It has a low key but consistent attention to continuity that would shame most "serious" TV shows.  Stuff that happens in the show informs events later on, which adds a nice extra touch of interest when you're watching a bunch of episodes back to back, and it helps to make characters feel more rounded because when we learn things about them, those things stay relevant and true later on.

If you liked earlier seasons of Archer, I see no reason you wont have a great time with this one, too.

Friday, 10 March 2017

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

I've said of a number of films in this set that they don't make movies like this any more, and that goes double for A Bridge Too Far.  Not only is it another ensemble based piece that is most interested in depicting the strategic sweep of events, ahead of personal stories - though it does show more of the latter than some of the other movies in this set - but it is also unapologetically a film where the good guys fail.

Operation Market Garden, the offensive on which the film was based, was an Allied attempt to break the German defences on the Rhine and expose the Third Reich's industrial heartland to a land attack.  Had it succeeded, it might have ended the war as much as six months earlier.  But it was always a gamble, requiring three groups of paratroops to land up to 60 miles (100 km) behind German lines, seize several key bridges, and then hold out for several days until an armoured thrust could reach them.  And said armoured thrust could only make the journey on a single narrow, raised road, because all the other terrain was too swampy for heavy vehicles to traverse.

Hardly the easiest of circumstances, and the plan also relied on good weather, and on an assumption that the attack would face only "old men and boys".  In fact, they would face veteran troops and armoured units under the command of Field Marshal Model, widely regarded as one of the finest defensive commanders of the war.

A Bridge Too Far is thus a film about heroism in the face of terrible adversity.  And as I said, a film that's ultimately about failure, when no amount of heroism can overcome the odds.

I suspect if it were made today it would make a much bigger deal of Operation Berlin, where 2,400 besieged paratroopers withstood massive German attacks and then escaped back to Allied lines, to give us a Dunkirk style story of  "victory". Well, as someone much more notable than I once said: "wars are not won on evacuations".

This is a sombre film, but one worth seeing, I think.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Fraggle Rock, Season 4 (1986)

I've remarked previously on the different interpretations of how many seasons Fraggle Rock had, so let's just say that this is the last 24 episodes of the show, as that at least is fairly uncontroversial.

However you count the seasons, it's pretty clear in the last dozen or so episodes that the creators knew the show was winding down.  The status quo that's endured for the preceding 80 episodes suddenly starts getting shaken up, with significant shifts in the relationship between Fraggle and Doozer, Fraggle and Gorg and even - gulp! - Fraggle and Silly Creature.  Heck, even Uncle Traveling Matt returns to the Rock, marking an almost total end to the 'postcard' sequences that have appeared in almost every episode of the first three seasons.

There's also a marked shift toward tackling more ambitious or off the wall ideas.  A couple of episodes here have some genuinely sombre moments (The River of Life and Gone But Not Forgotten specifically), while we also get diversions into a Sam Spade-esque flight of fancy and some surprisingly overt statements of the Fraggles' essentially communist social structure.  It's a bit like they figured "oh well, they can't cancel the show again!".

This is not to say that the existing formula of silly humour and exuberant songs is entirely jettisoned.  In fact I'd say some of the songs in this season are among the show's best, and there are plenty of funny scenes to be found as well.  The show's just bit richer and more varied in these final episodes, making it probably my favourite of the four boxed sets.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Scooby Doo! Wrestlemania Mystery (2014)

Thanks to his elite computer gaming skills, Scooby Doo wins an all expenses paid trip to "WWE City", a metropolis entirely given over to all things pre-wrestling, including front row tickets to Wrestlemania.  And after a little cajoling, he and Shaggy persuade the entire Mystery Machine gang to take the trip with them.

Of course, faster than you can say "Scooby Snacks", the gang find themselves confronted with a rampaging demonic bear and the fiendish theft of the WWE world championship.  Can these two events be connected?  (well, duh!)  And which of the various WWE superstars will be friends and which will be foes in the quest to find the answers?

WWE Studios doesn't exactly have the greatest reputation as a producer of fine cinema, but this film?  This film is an act of genius.

I'm sure most of you right now are giving me (or the screen, anyway) a sceptical look.  Perhaps some of you are already phoning the guys in the white jackets to take me to my comfy padded cell.  But if it's crazy to love a movie which pits four wrestlers and a talking dog in a steel cage match against a giant demon bear, then quite frankly, I don't want to be sane.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Wire, Season 2 (2003)

Thirteen women are found suffocated to death in a shipping container after their air pipe was damaged.  Another woman is found bashed and floating in the harbour.  Meanwhile an argument - over of all things, a stained glass window - puts a senior police officer on a vendetta against the local stevedores' union.

How all these events tie together, and where else the connections might spread, is the central framework of The Wire's sophomore effort.  And while this season isn't quite as good as the first, that's a high bar indeed: one not many programs attain.  This season is still a fine show, and effective TV drama.

One reason I don't think this quite reaches the same heights as the first season is that it has a rather longer, slower burn to it.  The police characters are scattered when the season starts and it takes quite a long time for them to reassemble.  This means that for quite some time they each have their own plot threads going on.  Meanwhile, the show has to introduce and track a new group of crooks, at the same time also keeping the Barksdale crew from season one in the mix, because you can be sure that business isn't entirely over.

Which brings me to the plus side for season two, it's clear that they knew they were getting at least a third series when they made this: the conclusion of this arc very neatly dovetails into a new storyline that will clearly drive the third season.  I, for one, am eager to see it!

Monday, 6 March 2017

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

2001's Pearl Harbor depicts the wholly fictional lives of two boyhood friends who grow up to be aviators during World War 2.  They're both present during the "day that will live in infamy", where they manage to get their planes into the air and help shoot down a dozen Japanese aircraft (which is almost half of all the actual Japanese losses on the day).  They then participate in the Doolittle raid over Tokyo, which occurred six months later.  During all this, they even find time to get into a love triangle with Kate Beckinsale.  Or so wikipedia tells me, anyway.  It's a Michael Bay movie after all, and I only watch those when they involve oil workers and giant asteroids.

The point of that preamble is to illustrate something that I've mentioned in several reviews recently: the very different approach between modern war movies and those of the 'classic' period from the late 60s and early 70s.  Now to be fair, it's the classic period that's the unusual one, with its focus on the how of events ahead of the who of characters.  Earlier war films were much more in line with those we'd see today.

As you might surmise, Tora! Tora! Tora! is nothing like Pearl Harbor.  Instead it's a pretty rigorously accurate account of the events leading up to the Japanese attack on the US Pacific Fleet.  It shows the divisions within the Japanese command as to the advisability of war, the similar divisions in America about whether an attack was imminent, and the series of coincidences and happenstances that contributed to the operation achieving complete surprise on the defenders: coincidences and happenstances that you'd probably scoff at, if they were fiction.

This film did fairly poorly at the US box office when it was released, possibly because its depiction of the US personnel was not exactly flattering.  It also came in for a scathing from the critics.  Roger Ebert, for one, hated it: it was too slow and the march of events too inevitable, and it didn't have any girls.

From my perspective though, the inevitability of the march of events is the point, as is the stately pace with which they approach.  The attack on Pearl was a calamity for the US, and Tora! Tora! Tora! is in some ways more a disaster film than a war movie, with the catastrophe looming larger and larger until finally it breaks like a thunderclap in the climactic act.

It's not, indeed, a perfect film, but it is most definitely one worth seeing.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Upcoming Schedule Change

The review this coming Wednesday will be the 1000th posted on this blog, and so next week marks a good point to change the update schedule.  I've got a number of commitments now that I didn't have when I started the blog, and I've also made a large dent in the pile of as-yet-unwatched movies and shows on my shelves.

Because of all these factors, after March 10th I'm reducing the definite schedule for reviews to two per week, on Tuesdays and Fridays.  I may well post one or more bonus reviews in any given week, so if you don't want to miss any then I suggest you follow my twitter @crowroadaw, or sign up for email updates, or choose some other method of staying current.

If you're a book reader you may also want to keep track of what I'm reading at goodreads.  My reviews there are generally only a few sentences, and I don't have any specific schedule - I just post when I finish something - but if you read genre fiction or history non-fiction, I may talk about something that interests you.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Blade Runner (1982)

In the 'future' of 2019, humanity has handed most of its dangerous, dirty work into the care of artificial humanoids known as replicants.  The latest models of these replicants are distinguishable from humans only via a complex pyschological test.  They're also stronger and tougher than we are, but genetically engineered to have a lifespan of only four years.

Because they present a 'danger', replicants are banned from Earth.  A special police unit known as 'Blade Runners' is set up to hunt and 'retire' them when they do.  Our film begins when group of replicants go rogue and come here in search of the man who masterminded their creation, then kill the first Blade Runner assigned to find them.  The hunt then falls to Deckard, who is forcibly drafted back into a service he'd previously quit for one last job.

I must admit that I've never liked Blade Runner as much as the geek handbook says I am supposed to.  I think the first hour is too slow, the romance is unconvincing - and at times just plain icky - and the investigation is (a) powered mostly by luck and the incompetence of the bad guys rather than any special skill on the part of the protagonist and (b) largely a failure in any case.

What the film does have going for it, though, is great visual design and an evocative vision of the then seemingly far-off year of 2019.  Watched today, some of the details are delightfully anachronistic - apparently we can have flying cars and off-world colonies, but the idea that we might have a phone we can carry in our pockets is just craaaazy - but it looks great, and it's refreshingly ethnically and culturally diverse.  We don't often see films that have the courage to imagine a future that really feels different to the time it was made.  Normally it's just "today's culture, but with new tech".  It also benefits from a fine performance by Rutger Hauer as the leader of the replicants.

Blade Runner is worth seeing for the visuals and the cultural imagination it shows.  I think it's certainly worth seeing for those factors alone, but it's most definitely a flawed film in my eyes.

(Note: There are a lot of versions of this film out there, so to be clear, this review is of the 'final cut', which differs from the original theatrical release mainly in that eliminates that version's explanatory voice overs and tacked on deus ex machina happy ending.  There are other chances, but you probably won't notice.)

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Nikita, Season 2 (2011)

Nikita Mears continues her struggle to bring down Division, the super secret black ops agency that originally trained her to be an elite spy and assassin, assisted only by a group of mavericks who don't always agree with her about the best route forward.

The first season of Nikita was a generally pretty good show with a weak conclusion.  This time around it is a generally weak show with a pretty good conclusion.  Not a great conclusion - one of the big flaws that has plagued the whole season is still present - but a pretty good one.  So at least it ends on a relative high note.

So what are those flaws I mentioned?  Well the biggest one - the one that continues even into the season's conclusion - is that the show is way way way way way way way too impressed with its bad guys, to the point where the shows feels more about them than it does about Nikita and her rag tag band of allies and frenemies.  I was heartily sick of both big bad Percy and other big bad Amanda by the end of the 23 episodes here.  Not least because for a large chunk of the season, the show keeps forcing the idiot ball on one of the good guys in order to make the bad guys look more awesome.

The second issue is how superfluous most of this season really is.  Like, you could watch the first 20 episodes of season 1, and then the last three of this season, and the only disconnect you'd have to deal with would basically be "oh, those guys who were obviously going to join Team Nikita actually did so" and "there are a couple of new secondary characters floating around".  And sure, episodic TV shows often more or less have a status quo they stay at, but Nikita actually dramatically changed its status quo at the end of season 1, and then spent most of this season slowly changing everything back to the way it was before.  It's a bit baffling really.

Still, the very end of this season shakes things up again, in a way that makes me feel some hope for series 3.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

America's Sweethearts (2001)

Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) were Hollywood's number one power couple; married stars who performed in a succession of eight monster smash hit films together.  Their ninth collaboration, directed by a renowned auteur, is due for its first press screening in just a few days.

Alas, during the filming of that ninth collaboration, their marriage fell apart,  Gwen took up with what the script tells us is a "handsome young Spaniard", though he's played by Hank Azaria, who frankly doesn't seem all that studly to me, and who in real life is older than either of the two leads.  Eddie had an emotional breakdown and has spent pretty much the entire time since at a mountain retreat trying to get over things.

Which would be bad enough, but there's also the minor problem that the renowned auteur hasn't delivered the film.  He promises it will be there for the press premiere, but point blank refuses to share what he's done until then.  Which .. well, it's not very plausible that a studio would allow this, to say the least, but sure for the purposes of the film let's accept it.

Anyway, it's up to publicist Lee (Billy Crystal, who also co-wrote) to not only get the two sparring spouses to both turn up for the press junket, but then to milk their feud for whatever PR advantage he can find.

So we've got three of the four major players of the film in place.  The last is Gwen's sister Kiki (Julia Roberts), who just might have a smidgen of chemistry with old Eddie herself.  All these people, plus dozens of reporters, are now all in one place, waiting for the film to finally show up.  No doubt everything is going to go totally smoothly, right?

Well of course it isn't.  That's kind of the point of this kind of film.

America's Sweethearts has a great cast, and some funny moments, though the rather far-fetched premise gets stretched to even more ridiculous lengths when the auteur finally does show up.  If you're looking for a rom-com that's not so treacly as the average example of the genre, though, this might be just the movie you want.