The Occasional Movie Review – Valkyrie

220px-Valkyrie_posterIt’s a well that Hollywood loves to mine: Nazi Germany during World War II. If anything screams pure evil, it’s Hitler and his army trying to take over Europe and the world. And frankly, it seems like there are still stories to tell from that time, including about the multitude of assassination attempts made on Hitler.

Such is Valkyrie, a story about one of those attempts. And while you’d think that between that powerful story and its robust cast, that the movie would be truly amazing. That was certainly my wish heading into watching it, but I, like a lot of others I’ve seen online, was disappointed. Though I’m not sure where to lay the blame.

The film is a historically accurate telling of a group of conspirators within the German military during World War II who plotted to kill Hitler and seize power by implementing Operation Valkyrie, which was designed to lock down the government quarter in Berlin to maintain the central government in spite of the loss of its leader.

As anyone who has studied any World War II history can tell you, there were many attempts on Hitler’s life during his time as leader of Germany, and none, obviously, was successful. Yet this attempt, according to the filmmakers, was intriguing because the military conspirators explicitly knew what their punishment would be if they failed, and yet, feeling the importance of the need to rid Germany and the world of Hitler, they continued with their plan anyway.

So with the powerful drama of a plot against Hitler, with only two possible outcomes (Hitler’s death or the death of the conspirators), there seems to be a strong, compelling story. And the filmmakers added a strong cast: Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, and Terence Stamp among others. The combination should be powerful. It should be a good, tense drama. But it isn’t.

The problem is that I’m not sure where it falls flat. The writing itself seems to go through each event point by point, as if reciting them from a history book. And yet, that seems like should be compelling enough on its own. In fact, there is no urgency or feeling of tension in the writing, and this may be what ends up being translated to film by the actors. But while Hitler appears in the film on a couple of occasions, he never is characterized in such a way to appear worthy of our condemnation, and the conspirators aren’t ever cast in the light of being heroes. It’s as if the writers decided that the viewers’ own existing feelings about Hitler and those who would wish to kill him would be strong enough to carry the emotional weight of the film. So without the strong characterizations in the film, we have no reason to root for or hate anyone in the film.

The weak characterization carries into the acting: Tom Cruise’s portrayal of the main character, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was not flat, but it wasn’t powerful enough to convey any real tension or fear on his part. Kenneth Branagh appears early, connecting Stauffenberg to the conspirators, and then disappears for the entire movie, until we see him kill himself after the plot fails. Bill Nighy’s character comes off as weak and indecisive. And even Hitler’s character is mostly forgettable.

The saving graces for the movie are the fact that while it’s just over two hours long, it moves along, doesn’t get caught in unnecessary subplots, and that the shots and scene setups do a good job to not get in the way of the story. But again, for a drama that should have been so tense, it was, frankly, boring.

Three out of Five Stars.


The Occasional Movie Review

The_Hundred_Foot_Journey_(film)_posterThere are remarkable films out there that do wonderful things with a very simple story, like this one: an Indian immigrant and his family make their way to France where they open a restaurant and he becomes one of the most celebrated chefs in Paris, but he finds fame lacking.

But that is basically the plot of The Hundred-Foot Journey, with a few side plots and a love interest or two thrown in. And maybe because of that, this movie is fun, light, enjoyable, and emotional, all while celebrating the universal appreciation of good food.

The story is this: Hassan is a chef trained by his mother to cook with flavors and smells. But his family is forced to flee India after political violence destroys their restaurant there and kills his mother. The family first make their way to England, but find their lives there unhappy and unfulfilling–mostly on a gastronomic level. Then they move to rural France, where they purchase a dilapidated restaurant right across the road from a very well established, Michelin one-star classical French restaurant run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).

While Madame Mallory is perpetually in pursuit of a second Michelin star, she and her restaurant staff look down at the simple and non-French food that the Indian family is offering in their restaurant, and she works to try to undermine their success in several ways, none of which fully pays off. Meahwhile, Hassan is learning about French cooking from books lent to him by a sous chef in Mallory’s restaurant, and eventually he and the sous chef fall in love. But when vandals tag the property, set a fire in the building, and Hassan suffers burns in the fire, Mallory changes her tone, believing that racism has no place in cuisine.

Her acceptance turns to friendship with the family, and eventually, she becomes convinced of Hassan’s unique skill as a chef, and takes him on in her restaurant as an apprentice, promising to develop his skills further. He helps the restaurant earn the prized second Michelin star, and he soon goes to Paris as a result of the accolades, where he becomes a star chef, but finds his success empty because he misses his family, his former girlfriend, and the two-restaurants out on that country road.

As I said, it’s a remarkably simple story, performed well by both actors and director, who seem to effortlessly tell the story without doing anything over-the-top–with the possible exception of Mirren’s French accent, which was probably unnecessary, but understandable. The serious scenes are serious, and yet, there’s always a light and somewhat playful undertone to the whole story, because ultimately, you know all the way through the movie that you’re in for a happy ending, even with all of the drama and tragedy that everyone experiences.

I was more amazed to learn about the surprising amount of totally unobtrusive CGI that went into the film: half of the french restaurant didn’t actually exist, and the nighttime Paris views out of Hassan’s restaurant windows wasn’t real, either. In fact, it was so seamless that had I not watched the “making of” featurette on the DVD, I never would have known the depths of the cinematic trickery involved.

Ultimately, the film celebrates food–a cross-cultural appreciation of just how wonderful and amazing food can be in any culture (with the exception of English food, which was universally declared flavorless by Hassan’s family as they’re leaving the country). And good food is something that everyone can appreciate.

Four out of Five Stars


The Occasional TV Review

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is comedy, but it’s a brand of comedy that I’m not sure could play on network television, which is why it ended up on Netflix–it was shopped to NBC who ordered 13 episodes and then passed on it. But while it might not play well on network TV, it’s exactly the kind of different, out-of-the-box show that network television needs.

That out-of-the-box aspect hits you from the very start and is the premise to the entire show: Kimmy was kidnapped as a teenager and has spent 15 years living near a small town in Indiana in the underground bunker of a doomsday cult. On her rescue, she ends up moving to New York City where she not only has to learn about how the world has changed in 15 years, but also how to live in NYC. She ends up sharing an apartment with a black gay struggling actor in a building owned by a strange conspiracy theorist (Carol Kane) and takes a job as a nanny for a very shallow and wealthy woman. Meanwhile, she tries to keep people from knowing she was one of the cult members just so she isn’t labeled, but still optimistically tries to live her life taking each day as the gift of freedom that it is.

That’s really all there is to it. It’s a concept that is silly and uncomfortable all at once. Which makes the writing–a kind of off-the-wall, slapstick style–fit perfectly. The characters are all stereotypes, but they’re also delightfully and perfectly off center, which is particularly fun when they find something another character does weird. Oddly enough, they also seem totally plausible.

All that being said, the first season takes a while to go from simply being silly to getting traction in being silly and really well thought out. In fact, it seemed like it didn’t really get a solid all-encompassing storyline until the last four or five episodes. Which is why you need to stick with it. The first half of the season just seemed weird and silly for the sake of being silly. But the payoff doesn’t come until the last few episodes when that same weird and silly tone really seems to find its purpose.

Besides, it’s only 13 half-hour (or so) episodes. Take the 6-7 hours and check it out.


The Occasional TV Review

I was cleaning up in the kitchen tonight, and as I often do, the TV was on in the background, just to keep me occupied. And after Wheel of Fortune ended for the evening, the CBS prime-time slate kicked in with the reality show The Briefcase.

Ordinarily, I avoid reality television like the plague. At its worst, it caters to people’s need to see other people often at their worst, and at its best, it’s really just a vehicle for people to make money by making some statement that isn’t that valuable in the first place. Either way, most reality TV amounts to nothing more than an hour’s worth of societal navel-gazing.

The Briefcase laid out it’s premise pretty quickly in the show: you have two families, both middle class, both struggling financially for a variety of reasons, and the producers introduce a briefcase containing $101,000 to each family. Then the families are given a simple set of instructions: keep all of the money to use as they wish, or give none, some, or all of the money to another family who they will learn about through text messages gradually over the next 72 hours. At the end of those three days, they need to make a decision, but at the end of that time, they will be flown to Los Angeles to meet the other family and will present their final decision to the other family in that meeting. Oh…the first $1,000 is for them to spend however they want, just to have fun, because the next three days will be hell, and the whole country can watch their agony for no good reason other than it fills an hour of television time.

My God, that’s a horrible concept for a TV show.

Okay, so you can search the interwebs for other commentary on the show, and you’ll find a mixed bag of reaction, but most of it is negative and loud about how it’s class warfare taken to the airwaves. And it is that, surely. But not for many of the reasons I’ve seen in these online reviews.

Let’s begin with the obvious: the producers and creators of the show have no idea what it’s like to be in the same position as any of the families they have or will present. They’ve never struggled to the degree these people have struggled. They’ve never spent a minute worrying about how they’ll dig their way out of whatever financial crisis is afflicting them this time. And because of that, they don’t understand that their entire concept for the show is flawed.

I’m pretty sure that their thought is that somehow, both families end up with $100,000. And I’m thinking the money is pretty irrelevant to the bigger hope by the producers that there will be deep, emotional discussions about the family struggles, but also the larger need to be kind to one’s fellow man. And I’m sure there will be huge amounts of angst and sleepless nights. And for this, there will be spectators because someone decided it’s good TV…

I just threw up in my mouth a little…

Here’s the thing, and I’m sure the creators/producers don’t understand this because they’ve never been in that position, but if you’ve ever struggled financially–and I don’t mean falling behind on a couple of bills; I mean thinking you’ve hit rock bottom, and then finding that the pit keeps on going–you know the feeling every single one of these families has. You know the thoughts every single one of them will have all the way through the show. And frankly, none of it is entertaining.

If you’ve been there, you know that you are working your ass off just to keep what you have together and to not fall any further down that pit. You’re focused on keeping your family healthy and happy. You’re doing what you need to to keep some food on the table, a roof over everyone’s heads, and clothes on everyone’s backs. And deep down, you keep hoping and dreaming about that moment–everyone who’s been there knows that moment–that turns everything around: a windfall, that job offer that pays what you need to make ends meet, or that opportunity that gives you the push to get over the barrier that’s keeping you down right now. In that position, everyone dreams about that. And it’s an emotional thing to be in that position. You’re tense, sad, nervous, anxious, but also happy and glad to have what you do have. And you’re hopeful. Always hopeful for that dream.

So imagine the thoughts and feeling when you open a briefcase holding $101,000. It’s the break, the windfall, the answer to every prayer and dream you’ve had for months or years. Then comes the caveat: the other family who’s in just as much trouble as you. And it’s all thrown at these families within the first few minutes of the show.

What the creators of the show almost certainly didn’t realize is that all of the families they think they’re helping have been living in this hole for so long that they’ve found that comfortable place. As long as things don’t get worse, they can get by. They provide for the basic needs of the family and they are comfortable in what they have. Having been there, I always new that there were those worse off than me and my family. So as much as having the opportunity to take the money is uplifting, the anguish over what to do with it is mean, especially since these families don’t know that the other family is in the exact same position. The “game,” if it can be called that, is rigged because both sides have the money. And while the producers say that it’s a win for both families because of that, it’s a horrible thing to do to another human being.

In short, the showrunners are inflicting three days of anguish and hell on these families in the name of entertainment, and it’s only costing them $200,000. Even though the producers have gone to great lengths to say in the show and in interviews that these families are not poor (they’re emphatically “middle class”) it’s still a form of class warfare because the middle class families shown are being emotionally manipulated by those who are clearly not middle class.

Sadly, this smacks a bit like some sci-fi story, where in the dystopian future, people are offered money to have the most emotional parts of their lives displayed on TV. It is the case of someone waving a reward while saying “dance, monkey, dance!”

I don’t know whether I’m pleased or sad to say I watched 10 minutes of this televised train wreck before I just physically couldn’t take it any longer.


A Long Time Coming – The Mad Men Review

It feels like I’ve been invested in this show for eons. Or at least a decade. But it turns out to only be five or six years. And after nearly eight years on the air, Mad Men concluded last night–and I hesitate to say it was wrapped up, because it was anything but wrapped up–and in its wake it’s left a lot of questions about what it was and what it was trying to say. I’ve talked about the show briefly in a post years ago after I started watching, but I’ll give a full-on series review here and now. So here’s your warning: while I’ll try to steer clear of spoilers, I can’t promise anything.

The quick synopsis of the show, for those of you out there who didn’t watch it and haven’t even heard what it’s about: Don Draper is a brilliant creative director for an advertising agency in New York. Through nearly an entire decade, we watch Don, the firm, competitors, and his coworkers and family grow, struggle, drift apart and change as the American society of the ’60s fades into that of the ’70s.

I’ve said for a long time that the show isn’t so much a story as it is a character study of a group of advertising people struggling with their lives as the whole world seems to dissolve around them. And if I stick to that as the premise for the show, the seven season arc seems to work. But the problem is that there are story lines that push the show along and give the viewers reasons to become invested in the characters, and some of those story lines just didn’t make sense.

But let’s look at what worked first. Most of the characters end up exactly (or very near) where you thought they’d be when the show ended. Joan knew how to get what she wanted from her life and had the ambition to do whatever she need to do. So her end point makes sense: she created her new role and will be happy with it for a while. Roger finally finds a woman who is his perfect match: kind of shallow, judgemental, argumentative, and happy just living a leisurely life. Peggy has always been ambitious with her career, but expected romance to find her somehow. And after a few pitfalls along the way, she finally found what she wanted…Or actually, it found her. Pete gets his family back and gets away from the city that always seemed to cause him trouble. Ken is finally respected in business. And Ted can just work and not worry about having his name above the door.

And even some of the bad stuff makes sense: Megan is at least in position to do what she wanted to do, so she’s on the path she wanted. And while it’s difficult, Betty and her kids have come together through tragedy, all the while keeping Don at arm’s length because he’s never really been engaged as a husband or father.

But it’s Don’s story that probably just kicks us all the hardest. Sure, he’s always been deeply troubled, and we learn along the way the many reasons why he’s so messed up. But he’s brilliant, and can read people (at least professionally–reading them in his personal life seems to be something he struggles with), but he frequently seems clueless as to why the world just won’t work the way he thinks it should. Nevertheless, he’s quite literally a self-made man: from his name to his persona to the career he has built purely through hard work and saying the right things. So the ending is weird because I think everyone can see Don heading into his future going one of at least two different directions. And that’s what doesn’t make us happy.

I’ve thought about this a lot since last night, and that’s really my only problem: We know where everyone else is headed, it pretty much makes sense, and we can easily guess why. But Don just will not be solved. And after seven seasons, we’ve desperately wanted him to be solved. We’ve watched him build himself up, knock himself down, rebuild himself, and fall again, only to repeat the cycle. And we’re certain he’ll do it again, which leads us to think the last scene means he’s repaired and refreshed and heading back into the world. But one thing keeps sticking in my craw (SPOILER!): of all the people he could have called, why did he call Peggy from the commune? What compelled him to call her when he finally realized that everything he’d built had finally and irreversibly collapsed? Is it because he respects her? Sees her as his equal? Or is it because she’s the only person in his life who he’s not vulnerable to and has the balls to actually tell him to pull himself together?

Everything in his life is gone except his money: his job, his family, his friends, his possessions, and even his home. And standing at the absolute edge of the country, on the opposite end of the continent from where his life went so very wrong, he’s basically faced with two choices: keep running, or take Peggy’s advice and go “home.” Which does he do?

I don’t have an answer to that. I have a suspicion that he goes home because that’s the only part of his life he can still hold on to. But because I don’t have an answer, I’m not positive what Don does with his life. But for now, I can be a little content to just imagine things going either way and know that each of those makes some sense. In context.

So here’s the review part: For those of you out there who haven’t jumped in to watch the show, do so if you want to watch people grow and change over ten years. Do it if you like watching characters do smart things, stupid things, and either help themselves or sabotage themselves. But be prepared for the last couple of seasons to just become a squishy mess of apparent nonsense. The last few episodes help solve the noise of those last two seasons. Though they don’t answer everything. But it’s an interesting and engaging show, fun for the fashions and history of the era that it reflects, and is worth watching at least for that. But prepared to be frustrated and confused at times as the writers seem to enjoy engaging in some strange and offbeat antics once in a while.