Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Dunkirk: Widely Misses the Mark

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Evacuation of Allied soldiers from the British Empire, and France, who were cut off and surrounded by the German army from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France, between May 26- June 04, 1940, during Battle of France in World War II.

Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German Army, and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.

Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, James Bloor, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Kenneth Branagh

The massively award-nominated and occasionally awarded film Dunkirk (2017) has been lauded by multiple critics. Among its nominations are for direction, editing, and musical score. I've afraid I cannot agree. But who am I, just a film fan, to disagree?

Dunkirk is the story of Britain's effort to rescue nearly 400,000 troops from Dunkirk, France, in late-spring 1940 as they wilted under the superior military strength of the Germans. The scale of the film in showing the threat posed to the troops, the efforts and failures the Brits faced, and their struggle to survive a brutal and unethical and continual attack is massive.  Just the scope of the filming, the number of extras, and the logistics is amazing. The special effects and stunt work to demonstrate the damage to ships on which troops were loaded for their escape and sunk was pretty good. But that's where the thumbs up end for me.

Editing? The film jumps around between characters and settings and time frames, making you lose the narrative thread of the story line right from get go. We were well into a third of the movie before we realized what was going on as the scenes shifted from day to night to day to night to day to night, on and on. Characters suddenly started showing up in disjointed places in the story. We might be at the beginning of the story or in the middle of the story, at any one time we weren't sure.

Directing? The editor works closely with the director and while the editor makes choices based on the script, the director makes the final decisions. This confusing disjointedness of the story is more likely his problem. Sure, the overall vision of the film, the grand scheme of the story, is attributable to him, but so are the nits. So I'll give him kudos for the overall vision, but I'll also give him boos for the messy narrative thread, too.

Musical score? To be blunt, there was nothing memorable about it. It should be memorable. It should help drive the emotional elements of the story, build the tension and stimulate the elation, even touch the heart. You should be able to hum the musical score when the movie is over. There's no "there" there from this film.

And there are few magical moments for actors in this film, either. I don't think anyone has been nominated for an award yet -- Oscar nominations are yet to be announced as of this writing. This is an ensemble cast of un-notable performances, save Mark Rylance playing a fairly minor part as Mr Dawson, the owner of a small private boat on his way to rescue the soldiers, and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton, head of the British Naval Forces in charge of the evacuation, who stayed behind when all ships had finally left. There were good performances otherwise, but nothing exceptional. It was, basically, an ensemble cast of dozens. Ho-hum. Rylance is a memorable British character actor. Branagh is an accomplished international star. Neither was the star of the film, yet they shined.

Dunkirk was a story needing telling. Perhaps in Britain and Commonwealth markets it plays differently and the actors are better known and their performances better appreciated. So maybe I'm missing something. But the way this film was edited, the way the narrative thread was spliced together so haphazardly, I think it missed its mark. Sorry. My take is, this film widely misses the mark and is overrated.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Girl Gone: A Mystery Turned Thriller Turned Horror Turned Sour

Book Review: Girl Gone by Gillian Flynn
Version: Library Hardcover borrow

Working with an author who was writing his first short stories, I read a particularly interesting cross-genre story -- a mystery, thriller, and potential horror. When I said how much I liked it, he suggested I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. So recently, I found myself reading this stunner of a story from 2014 that amazingly begins as a mystery, midway through crosses over into a thriller, and near the end becomes sort of a horror. And it works!

The main characters are Amy and Nick, a love-struck couple from New York City who lose their metropolitan writing jobs and the luster of success. Nick's parents back in Missouri run into major health problems, leaving his sister Margo (called "Go") to handle the stress, so Nick uproots big-city Amy and moves her reluctantly to small-city Carthage, Missouri.

Amy comes from a wealthy family, who has left her a large endowment. Nick is from a broken family, with few resources. Arriving in Carthage with no jobs and only Amy's endowment to live on, Nick taps her endowment to buy a bar, which he co-owns with his sister Go. With everyone under stress, the marriage suffers. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick goes home for something and discovers the home in a wreck and Amy mysteriously missing. Unleash the unfolding clues to the mystery, which seem to point to Nick as the killer of Amy!

We meet a host of other interesting side characters. Two police officers investigating Amy's disappearance. Potential other perps. Amy's worried parents. Nick's parents, one who has dementia and lives in a nursing home, the other who is dying from cancer. Amy's diary, telling her side of the story; Nick's narrative telling his side. Go, Nick's dogged supportive twin sister.

Halfway through the book, the story morphs into a thriller. No spoilers here -- suffice it to say, the story takes a sudden amazing turn as we find out the disappearance isn't what we thought it was. And a plot to nail Nick is underway. His very future and life are under threat. We meet new characters, some trying to help Nick, some that are direct threats to others.

And near the end, Girl Gone turns into kind of a horror story. There's an actual murder. Someone is an insidious mastermind at work, as a different kind of threat to Nick and his future continues. And then there's the story of what happened to Amy. Everyone in Nick's life is affected, and not for the good. If you're looking for a good outcome, there isn't one.

For me, there's the rub. After all the work building up the mystery and then the thriller, there's no decent end to the story. It's brilliantly written, well plotted and executed (no pun intended, considering that someone is murdered near the end). The characters are well defined and finely tuned. Descriptions and scenes are exceptional -- Gillian Flynn is a wonderful writer! I would have read it for the excellent writing alone. But I felt cheated at the end. For me, it turned sour.

Gone Girl has offers more twists and turns than a Disney theme park ride. This story was one wild ride. If Flynn had just written a more fulfilling end (face palm). My author friend thought it was a fitting end, considering the complexity and brilliance of the plotter behind Amy's missing and all the mystery and thrill and horror that person planned and executed. To me, it was like making it through a state fair fun house only to fall through a trap door at the end.

Should you read it? Definitely. It's damned fine writing. I enjoyed every paragraph. Just don't be surprised if you feel let down at the end. Let me know in the comments if you disagree.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Kingsmen: The Golden Circle: Brilliant but Unfortunately Not Suitable for All Audiences

Movie Review: Kingsmen: The Golden Circle (2017)
Version: Library borrow

The second movie in the Kingsmen franchise, The Golden Circle, is brilliant. But unfortunately it isn't for everyone. Certain language and a very explicit sexual scene make sure of that. Adult supervision is strongly advised during the music festival scene! If you're okay with strong language and you can keep the kids out of the room during the music festival scene, then teens might get through this otherwise fun, action-packed film unscathed.

Julianne Moore plays a drug lord who has tainted the world's supply of recreational drugs with a toxin that over time renders users first silly, then crazy, then paralyzed, then dead -- unless the United States gives in to her demands to legalize all drugs. Then she will release an antidote with immediate results to rescue the world's population of drug users. And it turns out, it affects people of all walks of life, including the president's chief of staff, a Kingsman's love interest, most of the world's population, and best of all, entertainer/song writer Elton John, who steals the show near the end.

The Kingsmen become involved when Moore's character, Poppy, blows up their headquarters in London and elsewhere. The only Kingsmen left are Eggsy (played once again by Taron Egerton) and Merlin (played again by Mark Strong). A clue leads them to a whiskey distillery in Kentucky, where they discover a "cousin" organization called The Statesmen. They meet a group of very erstwhile American agents, including leader Champ (played by Jeff Bridges), Tequila (played by Channing Tatum), and Whiskey (played by Pedro Pascal), whom they enlist in the battle against Moore's drug empire known as The Golden Circle. The Statesman's version of Merlin is Ginger (played by Halle Berry). An added interesting twist, Poppy has enlisted the help of Charlie (played by Edward Holcroft), one of the Kingsmen enlistees who didn't make it in the last movie. Colin Firth returns as Harry, rescued and resuscitated by The Statesmen but not knowing who he was.

For every Kingsmen British skill and tool, there is a Statesmen American equivalent in this movie, making for an entertaining match up as the story plays out. Umbrellas and suitcases give way to whips and lassos, stylish bowlers give way to Stetsons, broughams give way to cowboy boots, and on and on. But what they all have in common is their flair for quick action and well honed technique. From the beginning to end of the film, there is action. And just for added fun, Elton John gets to throw in a high-air karate kick during a rescue-scene sequence at Poppy's Cambodian lair. It's worth watching the movie just to see that!

So much imagination went into the making of this film. Not just the sets in London and surrounding countryside, but also making the Kentucky distillery look amazing. And then Poppy's lair is just out of this world incredible! Add to that the CGI for robotics and the special effects for the car chase scenes! Then the attention to detail for the fight scenes. For an examination of all that, make sure you get the Blue-Ray version, which includes an Extras section that lasts well over an hour -- there is so much there to see and absorb in that section alone!

My uptake for this film is, if you can take the more than occasional f-bomb throughout this film, and if you aren't squeamish about the explicit sexual scene during the music festival, see Kingsman: The Golden Circle. It's really quite brilliant, as the Brits like to say.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Emoji Movie: Great Family Entertainment for This New Years

Movie Review: The Emoji Movie (2017)
Version: Library borrow

If you're looking for a fun movie to share with the kids this New Years (or new year), consider The Emoji Movie. I wouldn't rate it up there with Inside Out, but it shares some of the colors and emotional tugs of that film, and The Emoji Movie has tons more interesting characters for kids to laugh about and with. Just think about all the amazing emojis you, and possibly they, encounter on social media and in other modern day situations -- they're there as fun characters in this animated film.

The basis of the story is a multi-expression emoji named Gene who's too timid to express himself when chosen by timid coming-of-age teen Alex to communicate with a girl he desperately wants to hang out with. When Gene accidentally shows the wrong expression, it releases a chain of unfortunate consequences for Gene and the seemingly unlimited universe of other emojis who inhabit Alex's smartphone, and thus Alex decides to take his phone in to wipe it clean. Then it becomes a race against time for Gene and his best friend, Hi-5, to get to the Cloud, where they will be safe. Getting in their way are a series of other characters intent on eliminating Gene, who they see as the reason imminent demise. Coming to Gene and Hi-5's rescue is Jailbreak, a princess turned hacker who just wants to be free to be herself.

The film features a great cast, including T.J. Miller as the voice of Gene, James Cordon as Hi-5, and Anna Faris as Jailbreak. There are some amazing cameo voices as well. Most hilarious for me is Patrick Stewart as Poop -- his credits list him as "Sir" Patrick Stewart, which makes me wonder if he insisted on the honorific in exchange for playing such a -- pardon the pun and language -- "crappy" part. Rachel Ray is the voice of Spam!

The design and animation are colorful and entertaining, as well. There's something fun for every age, a joke that everyone in the family can enjoy. I suppose this will hit closest to home for young and older teens, but younger kids will love the wild and crazy characters just as easily. Adults will find plenty to giggle at, too.

As I said, this doesn't rise to the quality of Disney's Inside Out, with its serious themes and its cuddly creations. But The Emoji Movie is still fun to watch. And it will entertain the whole family on a cold winter evening as 2017 turns into 2018 or even after.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Baltic Prize: Number Nineteen Is Another Winner!

Book Review: The Baltic Prize by Julian Stockwin
Version: Author furnished ebook

If you have read this review blog for long you know I am a huge fan of Julian Stockwin’s Thomas Kydd age-of-sail series. The Baltic Prize is the nineteenth adventure in that series, and after two slight twists to his successful format in Inferno and Persephone, Stockwin returns to its roots in a stirring tale of conflict and battle at sea. A return well done!

Stockwin’s stock in trade is historical fiction, basing his stories on detailed research and bringing that detail to his stories. For that reason, Inferno was more about the siege of Copenhagen and the failed negotiation to "borrow" the Danish Navy and less about the sea adventure. It was a necessary diversion, which brought us to this next tale. In The Baltic Prize, he returns us to the waters off the coast of Denmark, where the Danes hold the choking point of islands that secure the waters of the Baltic Sea.

In 1808 Napoleon has taken over most of Europe and cut off Britain’s economic ties to most of the continent. Once ally Russia has now joined forces with Napoleon, cutting off access to the continent from the north. It leaves only Sweden as their ally. Britain’s access to Swedish ports must be through the Baltic Sea, and the Danes have a score to settle with Britain after the burning of their capital and the taking of their navy.

With that as a backdrop, The Baltic Prize sets up for a challenge to France, Russia, and Denmark as Britain organizes a new naval squadron to ally with Sweden, which is under attack by Russia, to defend the Baltic route to the continent, and Captain Sir Thomas Kydd and his heralded frigate Tyger are among the fleet. Their charge is to defend the British merchant fleet trying to reach European ports. Their challenges are French privateers that raid the merchant ships at will, a newly built fleet of Danish gunboats that resourcefully go after both merchant ships and British naval ships caught dead in failing winds, and an increasingly more aggressive Russian Navy looking to stake a claim to Swedish ports.

Increasing the challenge is an erratic Swedish king and his now untrustworthy navy, not to mention a British general who insists on ticking off the king. It’s always something, isn’t it?

We find Kydd and the Tyger crew getting plumb assignments hunting down privateers, taking on gunboats, and seeking out the hiding places of sneaky “Ruskies”, with daring skirmishes and dangerous raids. Kydd must not only warily track his opponents, but he finds he must tread difficult waters among his colleagues, many of whom are jealous of his rise in position and he suspects of sabotaging his missions.

And always in the back of Kydd’s mind as he manages a life of danger at sea is his beloved Persephone, whom he has married and left back in England to manage their new estate.

As always with Stockwin’s stories, the characters are engaging, the story is full of exciting action, and much of the story is real, based on historical research. You learn about history as you enjoy a rousing tale. And as with every Kydd tale, I couldn’t put the book down once I started reading. In my book, number nineteen -- The Baltic Prize -- is another winner!

I read this as an ebook, but it's available in U.S. and Canada beginning January 2, 2018.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Circle: Solid on Story Line and Character Development

Movie Review: The Circle (2017)
Version: Library borrow

There was something creepy about The Circle. Not in a horror-movie way. Not in a sexual-assault way. But in an invasion-of-your-privacy way. And that's what this film is about, really, advanced technology's potential to invade your privacy in the most personal and devastating ways. For that reason alone, it's worth seeing, to explore what you may not imagine your giving technology access to while you're visiting Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapshot and all of those other "entertaining" programs on the Internet.

What enhances the creep factor is having usually affable, lovable Tom Hanks play the bad guy. He's not a violent bad guy. He's not a seductive bad guy. But he is a manipulator and someone who takes advantage of the weak and innocent. And when you are used to seeing him play good guys most of the time, seeing him play this kind of role rips your heart out. He plays the CEO of The Circle, the tech and social media company that just wants to connect the world for the betterment of human kind.

Playing opposite him is Emma Watson, who is the weak, innocent young woman who doesn't seem to have the strength or the will or the sophistication to resist Hank's charm or manipulations. She just goes along to get along. And Watson is so appealing as an actor that you can't help but feel for her as she keeps digging herself deeper into a hole as she advances in the company.

The basic story is that as Mae, one-time customer service rep for the city water department, she gets the job of a lifetime at The Circle. She starts out as a customer relations agent. But Hank's character, Bailey, and his COO Stenton (played by Patton Oswalt), see potential in her, and they give her an exciting new assignment. Now, The Circle is a social media program available all over the world, and its thing is connecting people and promoting openness and transparency. So this new assignment is to wear a camera and expose herself to cameras that The Circle has posted everywhere, to follow her every move, everywhere. She becomes an overnight success, people all over the world following her and loving her. But there are complications as the world taps into her relationships with others in her life, bringing unintended consequences, some of them devastating. In the background is a reclusive employee (Ty, played by John Boyega), who shows Mae the inner workings of The Circle and its dangerous potential. Their only solution is to challenge The Circle.

The look and feel of The Circle is today's Google or Facebook, but bigger and badder. The company's campus is amazing, full of fun places to work, exciting activities, inviting parties, and constant interaction between employees and frequent innovation. But hidden beneath the surface is a desire to control the world for profit.

If you spend a lot of time on social media, this movie will make you think twice about how and how much you share your personal information. That's really how The Circle might creep you out. That can be a good thing. But remember, it's just a movie. And it's a good one, well acted and well scripted. The futuristic graphics are solid and the limited special effects are great.

This was the last film for Bill Paxton, who plays Mae's father, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis in the story. Paxton died early this year from complications of a surgical procedure for an aneurysm. He gave a fine final performance.

The Circle isn't an amazing film, but it is a good one, solid on story line and character development.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: A Wild Ride Appropriate for Most Ages

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a wild ride. The vast number of alien species represented in this amazing science fiction film is just ... wow! I doubt film makers reach a thousand, but the creativity in this film just boggles the imagination, so you quickly lose count.

The story line takes place in the 28th century and involves humanity's outreach to the abundance of alien species at our doorstep, welcoming them to space station Alpha as it makes its way outward from the Solar System. But everything isn't peace and happiness, as interaction between humans and aliens sometimes involves conflict. And in one instance, an innocent race of peaceful aliens is sacrificed to save the human mission.

Major Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (played by Cara Delevingne) are sent on a dangerous mission to retrieve the last member of a species of gem converters from a devastated planet. When they return successfully, they must save their commander (played by Clive Owen), who has been abducted on Alpha in a suspiciously infected area. What they discover hiding in the infected area changes everyone's understanding of one of Alpha's past missions and its future relations with the thousands of species it has encountered to date. Getting from beginning to end of this tale is an incredible journey!

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a majestic panoramic view of humankind's future in space while making a metaphoric statement about advanced civilizations' cruel treatment of those who are far less advanced. It uses sweeping vistas, imposing set designs, and daunting visual effects to take viewers on a fantastic trip through time and space, introducing us to amazing species and colorful (literal and figurative) characters. You won't leave watching this film unimpressed.

This film also doesn't take itself especially serious. There is plenty of humor in the story to lighten the atmosphere.

As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I highly recommend Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets for teens and older audiences. Younger audiences may also appreciate it with adult supervision.