Monday, January 20, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – Film Review

I've looked forward to this movie for a while, ever since I first saw the trailers for it. For a long time I had been dying to watch a movie like The Bourne series again, and having also read the Bourne book (and mildly disappointed because the book was a different experience to the film) the need for some clever paced spy-espionage-international-action film had never been stronger.

As usual, being the curious one, I googled what people were saying about this movie – and a fair amount of my criticism (positive and negative) will be informed by what I read then. But of course I've seen the movie myself and here are my thoughts on it:

Jack Ryan is a business analyst with a history with the American Marines – who then gets hooked into CIA financial branch, picked up by Kevin Costner's character. Jack discovers suspicious transactions being carried out by a fishy Russian company and sounds the alarm that the Russians are probably on to something to hurt America (because isn't that what all Russians ever do?), not through the predictable violent and political means, but through economically bankrupting the Wall Street and making the dollar drop to a point where it becomes impossible for it to recover. By now you can tell this story will have a lot of depth in it, because by invoking words like financial analyst, economic terrorism, wall street, etc, you'd better be sure about what you're talking about.

And for the first half of the film, the plot line holds convincingly enough.

Phd guy doing covert operations? Where the movie starts to go a little downhill is when Jack Ryan is sent to Moscow to run operations for CIA. Sure, Jack has close associations with the officials of the Russian company that CIA is trying to bring down, so he would be a good choice to send there to meet them in person. In saying that, there is no practical reason as to why Jack, a mere Phd guy – with a history with Marines, yes, but with no covert operational experience – is suddenly given all these responsibility to do all the dirty work.

Short in numbers? Also, there were literally seven CIA agents that you see in the entire movie, only four of them doing anything significant, and only Jack Ryan (a business analyst!) risking his neck hacking into top secret world endangering Russian company's security system. They seemed more like a little gang of miscreants than the Central Intelligence agency. Are they running out of staff or what?

Fight scenes are short and rare, and when they do happen, shaky cameras reign in full glory. So for all we can see and discern, they could be fighting for their lives or they could just be tripping over and falling over flower vases.

Kiera Knightley doesn't look like she belongs in the film. She does well for her part, she is a polished actor and convincing actress. But her character seems only half-there – and her being there does not contribute or does anything to the story. She seems like an after-thought. A token female presence just in case the all-male cast gets too overbearing. I would say a female character should definitely be in, but perhaps either in a completely aloof way or a completely integrated way – not as a character who turns up halfway and is permitted to become part of a top secret scandalous operation run by America's top CIA – again, surely CIA can do better than that.

Far fetched – In this respect this movie falls way behind Bourne series because of the far fetched implications. We aren't in the Cold War anymore. A Russian company thinks of taking down the USA, bombing Wall Street (spoiler alert!); but wait, here comes a Phd financial analyst (who has no idea how to run an espionage operation) to the rescue! outsmarting dumb dumb Russians swimming drunk in their pools of vodka and going bonkers every time they see a beautiful woman – Tell me that doesn't sound far fetched –– if not ridiculous.

Chris Pine – Now on a positive note, Chris Pine as Jack Ryan redeemed the film. He's no Matt Damon. But he is a great cast.

Kevin Costner – well, regarding this guy – I didn't know he's still alive.

To conclude, this is a very good non serious action spy thriller. It has the things that you expect to see in a spy film –– world travel, women, car chases, European accents, ambitious globally connected villain group, a villain with personal issues, a nagging relationship getting in the way and a cool composed spy.

Lock up your brains when you go into the movies though, you won't need it that much––not atleast for the second half of the film. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Film Review – The Book Thief (3/5)

The Book Thief is a powerful film. It has beautiful music. An adorable cast and characters. A great cinematic experience.

So what's wrong with it?

Nothing is wrong with it. I just think that it does not live up to the greatness and ingenuity of the novel. (Here's a review of the novel I wrote a few weeks ago) For a novel that has almost an experimental narrative, and a story narrated by Death (a character), the movie felt very ordinary.

Here are some strong points for the film:

1. Characters. You cannot help but fall for Liesel, Hans, Rudy, Rosa, Max (and everyone else, even the Nazi-affiliated Mayoress). This is in credit to the actors themselves. Anything good or bad happening to them is greeted with joy or grief by the audience because they were that convincing. Also, the lack of romantic relationship throughout the entire film was refreshing. It seems like nowadays a film can't do without something steamy going on between a hot woman and a (preferably white young–if any) man.

2. The music helped. Half of the emotional policing was done very effectively with music. Of course that's because it was done by John Williams.

3. Cinematic photography. This is both a pro and con. While the careful staging of the story to enhance cinematic experience (for example, careful placement of Nazi flags in background towards metaphorical effects) helped tell the story, too much of it would suck the authenticity out of a story. Too much of it and you start to feel like you are in a Peter Jackson movie where everything is 'too intentional'.

4. Accents. How refreshing to watch a film set in the Second World War era where German characters don't talk in American or the Queen's english. The reason a film like Valkyrie (led by infamous Tom Cruise) doesn't deserve as many credit as it should is because the German characters are unashamedly cast with American accented English.

5. No SS suits, there is no Nazi glorifying in this film, that is always too evident in WWII films. That has always been the thing with movies set in this era made by Hollywood. Even though they all claim to be anti-Nazi, they never shy from portraying them to be a glorious empire of slickness and good design – which in a way is glorifying. As though they get their kicks out of seeing men in black SS suits.

6. The ending. (Read below)

Here are some weak points:

1. Dragging. The film dragged on in the middle. I won't bore you by telling you about it because then, I'd be doing the same, dragging this unnecessarily.

2. Storytelling. The reason, in my opinion, the book was so powerful was because it was told by Death – an almost impersonal being, without mercy, bent on one fixed agenda – and his story is about this little precious girl, so different from him, so much so that in the final line of the film (which I am glad they decided to include in the script) because of the way Liesel was, Death admits (he) is very curious about what it means to live. In the film, they did away with much of the narration by Death, and so loses the power of the story. Again, the scripting is unnecessarily dragging.

3. Another Second World War film. This wasn't just another WWII novel, that was for sure. My only qualm is that by the way the film is treated, it might just go down as just another WWII film. 

4. Poster. You might think a film poster is the least of people's problems with a movie, but it is. The Book Thief's promo poster reeks of gimmick and false communication. Instead of focussing on other more powerful elements in the film it focusses on the predictable flickering fire scene that is forgettable.

The Ending made up for everything wrong with the movie though. The closing lines narrated by Death. The wrapping up of the story.

Overall, there was nothing wrong with The Book Thief. But there was nothing extraordinary about it either. And for a novel that was extraordinary, that is a shame.