Sunday, December 21, 2014

Firestorm

A Chinese police thriller that follows Lieutenant Liu through a case that becomes increasingly personal. His crime squad is on the hunt for a brazen gang of thieves that are pulling daring armored car heists in the middle of Hong Kong. His "by-the-book" approach is starting to make him (and others) think that he will never be able to prove that is prime suspect is involved. As the stakes escalate, so does the ethical ambiguity. In addition to being a quality police procedural/action film, I also enjoyed watching the struggle of this character as he balanced justice, what he "knows to be true" and even over time, the adjustment of that knowledge as he encounters facts. I must say, I also appreciated the visual effects of adding tracer bullets to the gun battles. I saw that explicitly for the first time in Fury and now again here. It sure does remove some of the seeming chaos from a shoot out scene.
4 stars (out of 5)

Mercenaries

This film is a good concept. A kidnapping victim needs to get rescued, but the entire strength of the US Department of Defense can't figure out a way to stage an operation. So the CIA releases four women from prison to make a rescue team. It is a classic technique, with each member chosen for their specific skills. It worked for Dirty Dozen, Mission Impossible, and a host of other films. The twist here it that it is an all female team. However, you can tell from the opening line that this is a B-movie. Story, acting, and production quality are all 2nd or 3rd tier. Alas...
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

We pick up with out any "last time, on the hobbit..." reminders. Smaug is attacting Lakewood and the dwarves are trying to get into the mountain hold. Once they take the hold, men and elves come to claim their ancestral treasures that have been secreted away. They start to fight, but then orcs come and everyone fights together to defeat the orc invasion. Overlay this simple plot on sweeping vistas, a series of individually dramatic grudge battles within a massive, carnage filled field, and undertones of "last stand against evil" supported by "love will bridge all boundaries". Now that the series is finished, I am largely uninspired. Ho-hum, epic tale of middle earth...
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Imitation Game

The story of Alan Turing's conquest of the Nazis. Or, how the field of computer science was born. Turing got himself hired as a civilian contractor in WWII England, tasked to a team responsible for breaking the Nazi code system called Enigma. The permutations of the code were too big to crack by brute force each day, so Turing had a plan for a machine that could outperform thousands of people. It seems that his relentless pursuit was less about breaking the code that about building the machine. This is a great portrayal of the intelligence world of WWII Bletchley Park, the drive of one person, the group dynamics that necessarily fracture and fuse under intense pressure, and the horrible implications of both power and culture on the individual. It does make me wonder how other cultures (less individualistic cultures) would look at this film and interpret the personal sacrifices and personal suffering portrayed. Well written and well acted...
5 stars (out of 5)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Interstellar

Sometime in the future, life has boiled down to survival. Farming and living in a dustbowl, entire crops succumbing to blight, and technology being the general scapegoat for all things ill in the world. Enter Cooper (McConaughey), former pilot, current tinkerer/engineer/dreamer. He gets the call to pilot a spacecraft through a wormhole in search of a new planet to colonize. Straight up sci-fi. No fantasy, super-heros, romance, or comedy to "broaden" the audience. This a film that makes you want to think about what the future might hold, about what our responsibilities to life on earth are now, about unintended consequences, about the relationship between science/fact/perception/belief, about the limitations to our thinking that we can't even think about and about the implications of a survival instinct. The film is paced patiently so that you can start this thinking while watching. I think this is a good thing, in contrast to a blitz of sensory input and big ideas that blow your mind and don't allow you to integrate the implications of what you are seeing, which is common is sci-fi/big action films these days. In many ways, this is a traditional story of the triumph of humanity over nature. In many ways, this is a cautionary tale in the saga of man v. nature. Loved it.
5 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

John Wick

John Wick is a former mob hitman who has retired from the business. When his wife dies, and his grieving process in interrupted by a robbery, Wick enters revenge mode and re-enters his old life. This is as close to a first person shooter video game film as you can get and offers the same entertainment value. A character that is basically indestructible, can kill without remorse, and basically ravages everyone who crosses his path. There is no thinking here (there is no time), and there is not really much story. The filming and action sequences are crisp and well choreographed. But that does not in itself make a good film. I would classify this as a revenge genre (a la Taken) but to an even higher extreme. If you like watching someone play Call of Duty or similar games, you will enjoy this. I just felt slammed afterwards (glazed eyes, flat emotion).
1 star (out of 5)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Fury

The story of a WWII tank crew who has worked their way over the past few years from northern Africa into Germany. They are currently moving through central Germany in the last days of the war. As far as war, action films go, this is fairly typical in that there is an intense camaraderie created within the crew that ultimately overcomes any conflict. There are fierce battles alternated with down time where the crew can "act normal". And each soldier reacts differently to stress and normality. Really this is a character film where we explore the effects of war on different personalities. I am again struck by the coping mechanisms that each of the crew exhibits, from rage to nausea to enjoyment. I am struck by the brutality of war, both in terms of life and death and in terms of psychological abuse on soldier and civilian. I am struck by the assumed "necessary evil" that comes with war and battles. I am not sure if it is more disturbing that some soldiers can switch back and forth easily between brutal and pleasant, or that some get stuck in one mode. I perhaps am most disturbed by the fact that I could see myself as Norman... utterly repulsed by death, but being pretty good at the craft and coming to enjoy it. I suppose that seeing films like this is another push to remind me that pacifism and working toward peace is just that... work.
4 stars (out of 5)