Friday, January 24, 2014

2013 Top 10, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and Frozen

               Awards Nomination Commentary 
            and A Couple of Freeze-Dried Reviews (read on, please)

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting.  But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]
At least until the Oscars for 2013 have been awarded on Sunday, March 2, 2014 (which, in no relationship whatsoever, is also Texas Independence Day—some things you don’t forget after they’ve been drummed into you for 37 years [after which I finally escaped to California]) I’m also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2013 films made various individual critic's Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success—which you can monitor here—and any sort of critical/statuette recognition), but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little scrolling through the "various awards" list above, here are the Golden Globe winners for films and TV from 2013, along with the Oscar nominations here.
Before getting down to review-business-proper this week I’d like to begin with my long-delayed 2013 Top 10 list of feature-length-films (which could include documentaries but won’t this year, simply because I haven’t seen enough viable contenders to include them in my decision-making).  I know that other lists have been circulating for quite some time (you can find plenty of them in the first link offered in the resource materials in the above paragraphs), but I’ve been holding off until I could see all of the probable worthies; that goal has almost been accomplished—except for Labor Day (Jason Reitman) starring the always-reliable Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, but I won’t have access to it for a couple more weeks plus it’s yet to generate much buzz in the awards nominations or critical chatter—so I think it’s time to move on and put forth my list, which except for #3 below contains products all from American studios, which may be another indication of my limited exposure to what's truly worthy from around the globe, but based on what I’ve had a chance to watch here are my most-appreciated-choices:

1.  12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen; review in our November 14, 2013 posting)
2.  Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón; review in our October 9, 2013 posting)
3.  The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino; review in our December 12, 2013 posting)
4.  American Hustle (David O. Russell; review in our  December 27, 2013 posting)
5.  Nebraska (Alexander Payne; review in our December 5, 2013 posting)
6.  The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance; review in our April 18, 2013 posting)
7.  Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée; review in our November 21, 2013 posting)
8.  Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; review in our December 27, 2013 posting)
9.  Her (Spike Jonze; review in our January 9, 2014 posting)
10. All Is Lost  (J. C. Chandor; review in our November 7, 2013 posting)

To get to this decision I had to leave out some that were quite effective—but, in my subjective opinion, not quite as good overall as the ones listed above—such as the straightforward-but-deeply-impactful Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler; review in our July 16, 2013 posting) or had a lot of aspects done extremely well but still suffered from some fatal flaw, such as the masterfully-made-but-still-short-of-its-own-supposed-intentions The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese; review in our January 4, 2014 posting).  My choices overlap with 6 of the 9 finalists for Oscar’s Best Picture (again, see opening paragraphs of this post for a link to those nominees), with the need for them to dump Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass; review in our October 16, 2013 posting), Philomena (Stephen Frears; review in our December 5, 2013 posting), and The Wolf of Wall Street, then add my #3, 6, 8, and 10 choices (getting us both up to 10 contenders, rather than their restricted 9 based on their very complex, convoluted voting system which you’re welcome to attempt to decipher with the help of this article by James Schamus if you like) for them to be in sync with me—their goal each year, I’m sure—but despite my offer of tallying their ballots so that the accountants of Price Waterhouse Coopers could just have a relaxing weekend they insisted on doing it themselves, so—as usual—they got a few finalists wrong.  (Although there are likely fewer complaints society-wide about keeping theirs rather than substituting mine, but sometimes it gets lonely when you reside in the 1% of gifted cinephiles like I do, so one just has to bear one’s burden, doesn’t one?)  Just to complicate things further, the Producers Guild of America (PGA, with about 6,000 members, surely with Academy overlaps) has just announced their Darryl F. Zanuck Award (essentially, Best Film) as a tie between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, recharging both of their momentum arcs, along with the boost that American Hustle got from the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) for their Film Ensemble Award, essentially their version of the year’s Best Film.  All of this makes the Oscar race all the more interesting, with my hope, obviously, that 12 Years a Slave gets the biggest prize of all.

As for other Oscar discrepancies between my top 5 in certain categories and their choices, I won’t go into too much detail here (Raise your hands if you believe that; not a one of you, huh?  Well, at least that means that you read this blog on a regular basis.) except to offer a few comments on a few of the races unless you happen to be close enough to a bar in Hayward, CA to meet and discuss all of this in more detail:

Best Director—We’re almost in agreement here except that I’d drop Scorsese (never an easy choice, given his earned status as one of the very best in the world) and add Sorrentino, but I knew this had almost no chance of occurring (the Directors Guild of America [DGA] nominees almost matched up with both of us as well, except they also bypassed Scorsese, instead taking Greengrass for Captain Phillips).  If I were deciding the Oscars, I’d give this one to Cuarón, despite choosing 12 Years a Slave as Best Picture.  I hate to split these 2 awards, but sometimes the situation calls for it.

Best Actor—I’m almost in line with the Academy in this category as well, except I’d drop Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), despite admitting that this is likely the top performance of his career so far, to add Joaquin Phoenix (Her).  There’s nothing easy about this category either, given the fine performances that have been left out by both me and the Academy, but that’s the reality when there’s so much quality to choose from.  Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) just won this award from the SAG-AFTRA folks, where about 100,000 members voted, compared to less than 2,000 actors in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences actors branch, but given the likely-strong-overlap between these 2 groups I image McConaughey is now the Oscar-front-runner; nevertheless, I still hope the gold will go to Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) for an almost indescribably-sublime-depiction of a man whose life is maliciously taken away from him for the basest of material gains by his abductors.  Ejiofor marvelously portrayed this lesson in callous human cruelty, in a manner that transcends for me any further consideration of what an acting award is based on, although I’m in awe of what McConaughey accomplished as well last year, both in Dallas Buyers Club and The Wolf of Wall Street, adding to his great roles of recent years: Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012; review in our July 4, 2012 posting), Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012; review in our May 3, 2013 posting), The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, 2012; review in our October 19, 2012 posting), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011; review in our August 30, 2012 posting), Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011; review in our May 24, 2012 posting), and The Lincoln Lawyer (Brad Furman, 2011).  But, we have to judge on singular performances, not compilations.

Best Actress—I’m only 3 for 5 with the Oscar-pickers here because I’d replace Amy Adams (American Hustle) and Judi Dench (Philomena) in favor of Julie Delpy (Before Midnight, Linklater; review in our June 5, 2013 posting) and Brie Larson (Short Term 12, Destin Daniel Cretton; review in our September 5, 2013 posting).  Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen; review in our August 16, 2013 posting) won the SAG-AFTRA award here, clearly the front-runner for the Oscar which is just fine with me, although I’m glad Meryl Streep is nominated for August: Osage County (John Wells; review in our January 15, 2014 posting), a film and performance that I like considerably more than most, pushing her Oscar nominations to an even-higher-record of 18, with 3 wins so far (in addition to an enormous number of other nominations and wins in other film-related competitions—more Oscars or not, Meryl's proven herself as the golden standard for acting).

Best Supporting Actor—I’m back to 4 of 5 with the Academy on this one, with the difference being them choosing Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) and me preferring James Franco (Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine; review in our March 29, 2013  posting).  Jared Leto just took the SAG-AFTRA award in this area, a win I definitely would support again for the Oscars, despite my high respect for all of the nominees, a situation that holds true for all of these commented-upon-categories (if there’s anywhere I’d most want one of those almost-once-in-a-lifetime-tie-votes* this year it would be between Ejiofor and McConaughey for Best Actor).

* Only 2 so far for performers:  Wallace Beery in The Champ (Frances Marion) and Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian) for Best Actor in the 1931-32 release year (they had different rules then); Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter, Anthony Harvey) and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl, William Wyler) for Best Actress in 1968.  However, there have been 4 others: A Chance to Live (James L. Shute) and So Much for So Little (Chuck Jones) both won for Documentary Short in 1949; Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got (Brigitte Berman) and Down and Out in America (Lee Grant) both won for Documentary Feature in 1986; Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life (Peter Capaldi) and Trevor (Peggy Rajski) both won for Best Live Action Short Film in 1994; while Skyfall (director, Sam Mendes; sound, Per Hallberg, Karen Baker Landers) and Zero Dark Thirty (director, Kathryn Bigelow; sound, Paul N.J. Ottosson) both won for Best Sound Editing in 2013.

Best Supporting Actress—Here I’m back to making 2 substitutions to bring my preferences in line with Academy nominees:  remove their Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), add my Scarlett Johannson (Her)—despite it being a voice-over rather than an on-screen role—and Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County), for me the strongest presence in the film after Streep, despite Roberts having the larger role.  I’ll just have to hope that the Academy follows SAG-AFTRA in giving the award to Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) or, if not, June Squibb (Nebraska).  Jennifer Lawrence is getting a lot of notice for a stellar performance in American Hustle, but I’d still put her at #3 behind these other 2.

Best Original Screenplay—In this category there’s synchronicity among me, the Academy, and the Writers Guild of American (WGA), with the only difference being them both taking Dallas Buyers Club (script by Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack) and me preferring Inside Llewyn Davis (script by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen), my #1 choice, but given that it’s not in the running I see a close race between American Hustle (script by Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell) and Her (script by Jonze).  I still don’t understand what’s “Adapted” about Before Midnight—my clear choice for the Original Screenplay prize—but if simply continuing to play the same characters that these actor/screenwriters portrayed in the previous Before … films constitutes adaptation, then let’s move on that decision to a final commentary-category for me at this point.

Best Adapted Screenplay—Again, I’m just 3 for 5 with the Oscar nominators, as well as with the WGA folks, but the overlaps are a bit different.  The only 2 we all agree on are Before Midnight (script by Linklater, Delpy, and Ethan Hawke)—my #1 if it has to be in this Adapted category—and The Wolf of Wall Street (script by Terence Winter) with me and the Academy also going with 12 Years a Slave (script by John Ridley).  For me to balance out with the Academy we’d have to remove Captain Phillips (script by Billy Ray) and Philomena (script by Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope), substituting August: Osage County (script by Tracy Letts) and The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt; script by Scott Neustradter, Michael H. Weber; review in our August 30, 2013 posting).  The WGA voters would go along with me on … Osage County, but I’d have to convince them to trade … Spectacular Now for their choice of Lone Survivor (direction and script by Peter Berg).

Sometime before the Oscars are given in early March I’ll post my actual predictions and preferences for all 2 dozen of their categories, but for now that’s enough speculation and enough raw material for heated debates, disagreements, and animosity over who wins what and why that will just keep building over the next month and a half.  Add to that the deflation that many of us on both coasts of the U.S. are feeling over dashed Super Bowl hopes from losses in last weekend’s NFL Conference Championship games (along with some bitter anger that I’m trying to dissolve over private matters I won’t bore you with and a miserable stomach virus that slowed me down considerably this week) and we’ve got the ingredients for some very negative conflicts, so before any of that can go any further I want to offer a soothing alternative, “to bring some lovin’ here today” with the great-but-tragically-departed-Marvin Gaye’s uplifting song, "What's Going On" (from his 1971 album of the same name, presented here from the 1983 TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever).  After that lyrical meditation, let’s move on to a couple of completely separate reviews, one focused on another Oscar contender—for Best Animated Film—and the other for our first Two Guys in the Dark 2014 release, beginning with the latter, given that it’s much more recent for most of you at this point, having just been out for about a week.

Reviews by Ken Burke      Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Tom Clancy’s espionage agent gets a trendy reboot, an origin story about nefarious financial dealings in Moscow with the world's fragile economy hanging in the balance.

Tom Clancy, born a few months before me in 1947 but now deceased as of October 2013 (with situations like that giving me constant reminders of my own mortality, along with the periodic notices from my high-school-graduating-class-historian of how many others from our 1966 cohort are no longer with us as well) would likely not have been too impressed with the new movie based on his most-famous-character, CIA analyst-turned-field-agent, Jack Ryan, given that highly-successful-and-meticulously-detailed-novelist-Clancy reportedly didn’t care for Hollywood’s adaptations of a few of his many Ryan books (The Hunt for Red October [John McTeirnan, 1984], Patriot Games [Phillip Noyce, 1987], Clear and Present Danger [Noyce, 1989], and The Sum of All Fears [Phil Alden Robinson; 1991], with Alec Baldwin in the role in the first 1, Harrison Ford in the next 2, and Ben Affleck in the last 1, providing an early indication of what the storm of perceived-miscasting is like for Ben, a situation newly-revisited with the fanboy howls that he’s not an appropriate choice for the Caped Crusader in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman [Zack Snyder, 2016 intended, if they ever verify who gets first billing]), nor was he happy with Ford’s casting in feeling the actor was too old for the part; to make things even worse in this latest Ryan outing regarding Clancy’s likely attitude toward it, the story is essentially an original script simply based on Ryan’s existence in the other narratives (although I’m sure that would qualify is an adapted script, or at least that’s what’s happened this year with Before Midnight—see the grumblings over this from your erstwhile critic in the comments above about Oscar screenplay nominees), although maybe Clancy would have been more forgiving knowing that none of his original thoughts and plotlines (except his conception of Ryan as a former Marine injured in a helicopter accident, later married to Dr. Cathy Mueller [slightly different spellings in the books vs. the various movies], medical-student-turned-ophthalmic surgeon) were being improperly transformed in this new Ryan origin story (essentially what The Sum of All Fears was previously, so I wouldn’t spend much energy on trying to reconcile what goes on in this cinematic-5-somewhat-of-a-kind) but probably not, given Clancy’s personal devotion to military and conservative causes set against interpretations of Ryan not always very-true-to-the-source-material from the liberal-leaning-production-teams who’ve previously put Ryan on screen (but appreciated by viewers like me).  While none of the previous Ryan actors got much chance to establish themselves in the role, Chris Pine may have a rosier future, given his young age (33) along with the crossover fame he’s also gathering as J.J. Abrams continues to redirect us through the Star Trek saga, with Pine evolving the iconic-character of Capt. James T. Kirk (Star Trek [Abrams, 2009], Star Trek into Darkness [Abrams, 2013; reviewed in our May 24, 2013 posting]).  

 In the photo above we see him in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Branagh) being brought into the spy world in a flashback where he’s come under the watchful eye of CIA honcho Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) after a major attack on Ryan’s body in Afghanistan with that helicopter crash, as he’s joined the Marines in response to the horrors of 9/11/2001.  These past scenes—and their spoken-about-rather-than-shown-follow-ups where Jack finishes the London School of Economics Ph.D. he abandoned for retaliatory military service and develops a romance with Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley)—are for context, but the real focus is on the present (our just-past 2013, another reason why … Shadow Recruit isn’t intended to fit neatly with past Ryan movies but instead consigns them to an alternate universe so that future Ryan plots can evolve as needed rather than be hamstrung by fidelity to the previously-depicted-actions we’ve witnessed in the stories of Baldwin, Ford, and Affleck [in a similar-but-more-overt-manner, Abrams tossed in a space-time-realignment-twist in the new Star Trek movie so that nothing we’d previously witnessed in the lives of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc. necessarily has to evolve that way]); with the Ryan-reboot-stories, the assumption is simply we’re meeting the character for the first time so anything that occurs later in his life doesn’t have to be reconciled with previous continuity, a very liberating situation for the current Ryan production team, although Jack’s on-the-spot-promotion to field-agent doesn’t prove very liberating for him as he’s quickly thrown into the frying pan of assassins all around him, along with kidnappers of fiancée Cathy, and the usual-seemingly-impossible-to-prevent-disaster masterminded by chief-villain Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), with the world’s economy hanging in the balance (although the assumption is that even if Russia’s financial stability initially tanks like all the rest around the globe Putin’s [although he’s never mentioned] troops will still be able to resurge, given their vast amount of petroleum resources).

Branagh provides a marvelous presence as the financial-wizard whose scheme (concocted with the aid and abetment of the Russian government) has been to use Russian investments to secretly prop up the economies of Japan, China, and (most importantly) the U.S.  At a pre-arranged time Cherevin’s son, Aleksandr (Alec Utgoff)—who’s been living covertly in Michigan under an assumed name with 2 other secret agents, a doctor and his wife, after Aleksandr’s death was faked years ago—is to get a bomb-rigged-van under a key location on Wall Street, detonate it so that the world assumes there’s been another huge attack on the U.S. by a terrorist cell, then Cherevin will sell off all of the long-hidden-holdings in dollars, providing world-wide-financial collapse, with the Russians ready to rise to the top of the smoldering heap.  Honestly, some of this doesn’t come off nearly that clearly as events and quickly-spoken-explanations are presented to us in the movie, but if you just flow with the action as Ryan and team speed around the streets of Moscow to rescue Cathy, then jet off to NYC to attempt to defuse the bomb (which proves impossible so instead Ryan drives it into the East River where the explosion is largely absorbed by the deep water—so is Aleksandr, as Ryan rolls out just in time, leaving the would-be-bomber to his own tragic end) the whole experience is energizing if not very cognitively-stimulating.  As an example of the egotism that characterizes Branagh’s villain, he keeps refusing to set off the selloff of the American dollars, insisting that they wait until the attack weapon has been detonated, in honor of his soon-to-be-dead-son, much to the chagrin of his comrades-in-crime, because not only does the bomb not provide the intended crisis but also the delay in action allows the U.S, to shut down the NY Stock Exchange, preventing the selloff-plan from being activated at all.  Along the way, though, Cherevin and Ryan play cat-and-mouse with Cathy, who surprises Jack in Moscow trying to make sure he’s not having an affair.  In a nicely-delivered comic exchange she’s greatly relieved that he’s “merely” in the CIA conducting dangerous, undercover activities, which she agrees to join, distracting Cherevin’s attention at a restaurant dinner for the 3 of them while Jack sneaks into his adversary’s well-guarded-building to copy some files that will reveal the Russian intentions (if this sounds like something you’ve seen before in numerous spy movies, you’re correct).  Jack gets his data and escapes, only to find Cathy grabbed by Cherevin’s henchmen so the chase is on for a good chuck of the film’s running time, on both sides of the Atlantic, until Jack saves the day in Manhattan while Cherevin is executed by his higher-ups for failing to carry out the plan properly (although he was terminally ill anyway, so both of the males in his family were slotted for departure, a fate that came not-as-intended for either of them).  Honestly, I wasn’t able to fully follow what was up with Aleksandr in terms of the tributes Cherevin kept paying him, what was being avenged, etc. (although it seemed to be some combination of old international wounds from U.S. support for the locals when the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s along with fury that the U.S. supports an oil pipeline through Turkey, thereby countering huge Russian monopolistic profiteering; however, if you really need detailed explanations as to what the current global crisis is about in these kinds of movies then you’re likely taking them too seriously).  That makes little difference, though, in terms of the plot hinging more on the usual countdown-timing-tension of the Wall Street bomb and the dollar selloff, but if you’re as dense as I am on certain plot points rushing by you like they’re runaway cars it can at least provide an ongoing “Now, what’s the deal with Aleksandr?”-type-distraction.

But, speaking of distractions, the biggest one for me is the casting of Knightley as Cathy (no matter how you spell her “maiden” name) who’s never hit me as much of a compelling actress—functional, but not compelling—although her physical charms do provide an attractive screen presence in the first 3 Pirates of the Caribbean voyages.  However, the main distraction for me is her close resemblance to Natalie Portman, whom I consider the superior thespian, so every time Knightley was on screen I kept wishing it was actually Portman but no such luck.  (It’s not just me who sees this resemblance: Knightley played the role of Sabé, handmaiden to Portman’s Queen Padmé Amidala in Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace [George Lucas, 1999], serving as the decoy-queen during the invasion of Naboo because of her royal-lookalike-status.)  As Cathy, she’s also a distraction for Jack (and possibly for you in the photo above, with that sickly yellow light on her face, but it's an appropriate shot for the context of the movie, not an intentional degradation of her presence in it), as she suddenly shows up in Moscow just as her soon-to-be-husband has been made operational after being attacked by a lethal goon who picked him up at the airport, then attempted to kill him in his hotel suite (seemingly sent by Cherevin, who knows Ryan at this point as only a financial colleague but one who’s on to some aspect of his economic-world-domination-plans without yet understanding the scope of the scheme; whatever else you may think of the CIA, though, they’re marvelous at interior decorating, not only removing the bloody body of the would-be-assassin but also patching up Jack’s hotel rooms so that there’s no longer any trace of the bullets, broken items, and general mayhem that took place, even though they had only a few hours to do it all).  What you’ll get out of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has a lot to do with what you expect from an action-espionage-movie, as well as how many you’ve already seen of the James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission: Impossible stories. (Just curious, how many of you would have recognized this 4-going-on-5-series if I’d just used the name of the main character, Ethan Hunt?  I admit I never remember his name, even though I do like these Tom Cruise vehicles.)  This one offers nothing new in terms of never-ending-Cold-War-era-confrontations, tension-filled-break-in-then-computer-download-scenes, high-speed-vehicle-chases through major cities, and grim determination on the part of the hero to make things right, no matter the risk to himself.  If all you need for a successful re-emersion into something like this is a well-crafted couple of hours with some attractive actors in the lead roles, then you’ll likely find that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a very acceptable addition to the previously-cited-catalogue of this type of dynamic-diversion (plus, my eternally-insightful wife, Nina, notes that it’s interesting to watch the successful transition of wounded-then-rehabilitated-but-desk-jockey-committed-Ryan [Jack to Harper: “You know, you sold this as an office job.”] into an active field agent as portrayed by the eminently-watchable-Pine, based on both his looks and consistent performance craft); however, in that I got little beyond what I expected from the trailer (except enough constant action to keep my attention throughout, except when I wasn’t trying to figure out what Aleksandr had to do with Cherevin lighting votive candles in a church), I’ll give this one an enthusiastic-but-still-just-3 stars, in hopes that further editions of the newly-reconstituted Ryan story will up the ante a bit further now that all of the principal players and motivations are in place (and maybe they can slip Portman in to replace Knightley, but I won’t hold my breath on that).

For now, though, if you’d like to see something better that has many elements of this new Jack Ryan adventure, I’ll encourage you to find the current revision of Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective in the BBC/PBS Sherlock mini-series, with the first movie-length-installment, “The Empty Hearse,” already broadcast in the U.S. on January 19, 2014 but 2 more to come on the Sunday nights of January 26 and February 2, 2014 (you can get extensive details on previous episodes of this new, set-in-present-day-Holmes-revival—starring the fascinating, now-cinematically-ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman [also known as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies]—at a BBC site, along with being able to see this latest Sherlock episode for free if you missed its U.S. showing, or if you’d rather just read about it, you can do that too but it’s a lot more fun to watch), where you’ll get just as much story-based-tension, along with a very similar motorcycle run through London (rather than Moscow), a bomb scenario (this one involving a subway car, Parliament, and Guy Fawkes Day—masterminded by Serbian villains with plans to disrupt London, who certainly resemble the sort of cretins that Ryan was battling in Russia trying to disrupt everyone), but a much more compelling character in Sherlock Holmes, some great images that evoke both TV’s CSI microscopics and Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) graphics, and the intrigue of the other main storyline: how did Holmes survive what seemed to be his death leap at the end of the previous Sherlock episode-cluster?  Finally, to cap off all of this mysterious-Russianish-madness, here’s my first musical metaphor of the week, to accompany your considerations of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, The Beatles doing a Beach Boys parody (but the surfer guys will get a chance to sing as well in just a bit) with “Back in the U.S.S.R.” (from the 1968 The BEATLES album [“the white album”] at LTg).  There’s likely no version of a live performance of this so I’ll just give you the song with clips of the Mop Tops added from the earlier ‘60s Beatlemania days, where things could sometimes get as chaotic as Jack Ryan wheeling around various city centers as the danger clock is ticking.

Moving from a current movie that won’t be worrying about any Oscar nominations next January to another still holding on from 2013 that has no such worries either, let me just make some remarks—not a formal review at all—about Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Adam McKay), a current intentionally-absurd-comedy reuniting Will Farrell as newsman “extraordinaire” Ron Burgundy, along with his team of Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, and Christina Applegate (along with the usual pack of big-name-cameos) in the continuing adventures of some of the most clueless, boneheaded guys ever to appear on a TV news program, in this case making the transition from local idiocy in San Diego to a fledgling cable news channel (Global News Network—GNN) in NYC, 1980 (their previous nutball adventures were presented in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy [McKay, 2004], with the same primary cast).  What we have here is a collection of stupid jokes (some of them intentionally non-politically-correct, all of them presented in a rapid-fire-fashion similar to the if-you-don’t-like-this-one-wait-about-90-seconds-so-we-can-fling-something-else-at-you-style of “man against the world” comic approaches that have served many lowbrow vehicles well from the early 20th century shorts of Mack Sennett’s slapstick ensemble to the genial-goofing-around on TV’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In from the late-1960s-early 1970s—the kind of constant-idiocy that Farrell was so successful at on SNL but which doesn’t always come to fruition in other SNL skits that drag out forever before finally resolving themselves), with mugging instead of acting (although in this context it’s accepted as effective comic styling [at least by the audience I was with]). Some useful satire is mixed in here as well, with body shots to the cable news scene that dominates our videosphere “information dissemination” of today with its continued emphasis on partisan politics, sensationalism, cute kitten and puppy signoffs, and outrageous personalities intended to stir the emotions of their audiences.  By the time we get to the end of this calculated-mess (75% acceptance by the Rotten Tomatoes critics, 61% by the [assumed-but-not-proven] more-“prestigious”-Metacritics [although they do offer great awards-compilation-sites) Ron and his buddies must engage in a face-off-battle in a NYC park with various other teams of exaggerated “reporters,” which gets us to the level of a This Is the End “narrative” ploy (Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, 2013), whether you find that a compliment or not (more “not” for me; review of this earlier high-budget-“selfie” in our June 20, 2013 posting) before all is well on both the ratings and home fronts for clueless-more-often-than-he-realizes-it-Ron—but with our fearless leader at seeming MENSA-level compared to constant nitwits Brick Tamland (Carell) and his new-found-fiancée, Chani Lastnamé (Kristen Wiig).  If all you need is distraction from the workaday worries of your life, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues may be just what you need.  If this were an official review I’d say about 3 stars for constant effort and enough successful laughs to hold it together; you can start exploring it more on your own if you like at its official site as well as check out its trailer to see what you’re in for, if you weren’t already at an opening-day-screening about a month ago.  I’ll even give Anchorman 2 its own musical metaphor, the Beach Boys “Catch a Wave” (from their 1963 Surfer Girl album) at with great waves footage attached (in honor of the Mavericks surfing competition scheduled to start in my near-by-town of Half Moon Bay, CA [Princeton-by-the-Sea, if you want to be super-accurate] on post-day here, Friday January 24, 2014) because Ron and company really did “catch a wave” at the start of the cable news craze, turning turds into gold at every occasion, capped by his highest ratings coming when he walked off the set to go join his wife for their son’s piano concert.  Let’s see the folks at Fox News or MSNBC get away with that!  (Although I’d be glad for Bill O’Reilly to try it if he’d stay gone; I'm sure there are others who'd say the same for Rachel Maddow, so we can all dream as it suits us.)


Disney animation returns to the princess mode with 2 royal sisters, where 1 becomes queen, accidently covers her lands with ice, then needs a rescue from an odd trio.

So, after dwelling for a bit on the above no-Oscars-for-you attempts at espionage-action and wacky-comedy, now let’s finish up with a few comments on what will likely be one of the last 2013 Oscar nominees that I get a chance to see before the awards are given out, Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee) contending for Best Animated Feature Film (after winning that honor at the Golden Globes and receiving a similar nomination in many venues) from the magic-makers at Disney, this time doing it for themselves instead of riding on the bandwagon of their Pixar subsidiary.  Based very loosely on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen (you’d never recognize the original from this adaptation), our story concerns the princess sisters Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel; blonde in the center of this photo) and Anna (voice of Kristen Bell; redhead to the right of her sister) who find themselves in the horrible circumstance of Elsa being born with magical powers to create ice and snow, a curse more than a blessing because she can’t control it very well, almost accidently freezing her baby sister so both girls are kept locked away in the palace of their kingdom of Arendelle until (due to an unrelated ocean tragedy that drowned their parents) Elsa comes of age, thereby being required to come out in pubic for her coronation as queen, an event spoiled by Anna’s sudden infatuation with neighboring Prince Hans (voice of Santino Fontana; far right in the photo) which leads to conflict between the sisters when Elsa refuses to allow the lovebirds to marry, setting off an eruption of her wintery powers which throws their entire kingdom into the freezing grip of winter (a most unwanted environmental twist, as victims of North America’s recent polar vortex can testify) despite the summer days on the calendar.  Elsa goes into voluntary exile, gaining greater command of her increasing powers but also refusing the entreaties of Anna (accompanied by Kristoff [voice of Jonathan Groff; to Elsa’s left in the photo], an ice-seller temporarily put out of business; his reindeer, Sven [oddly enough for a Disney film, he doesn’t talk but Kristoff provides “dialogue” for him]; and a silly, living snowman, Olaf [voice of Josh Gad—even though we have no talking animals we do get the requisite silly sidekick, so it is a real Disney film after all] accidently brought to life by Elsa) to come home and somehow bring summer back to the land of Arendelle.  Further complications arise when Elsa again accidently hits Anna with her icy power, weakening her heart which can probably only be cured with the first kiss of true love, but even though Kristoff manages to get her back to the palace we learn that Prince Hans is merely an opportunist attempting to enhance his own prestige by marrying an available royal so he doesn’t love her at all.

Interestingly enough, what sets this story apart from the standard Disney canon is that while we assume that Kristoff will be the one to deliver the necessary life-restoring kiss (given that he’s bonded with Anna during their journeys and travails) the rescue actually comes from the sisterly love of Anna coming to her sibling’s aid, preventing rotten Prince Hans from killing Elsa (based on his false claim that she was responsible for her sister’s death) but freezing into an ice statue in the process.  Elsa’s grieving for her frozen sister then brings about a life-restoring-thaw to Anna (all done in the spirit of family warmth, no kissing at all—again, this is Disney, not an incest-version of Blue Is the Warmest Color [Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013; review in our November 21, 2013 posting], although you’ve got to admit that this title could take on some marvelous irony if this blizzard-bound tale were being told by a less-family-friendly-studio)—a marvelous twist on our conditioned Snow White/Sleeping Beauty expectations that only a manly-man can bring our cursed princesses out of their evil spells (for that matter, this wasn’t even the result of a wicked person/fairy putting a heroine into a trance but simply comes about when a woman who’s been kept away from developing her talents out of fear for so long suddenly allows them to run rampant, causing some unintended collateral damage, so Disney continues to get more in tune with contemporary society).

As the conclusion rapidly comes to pass, the villain is sent back to his homeland Southern Isles for proper punishment, Elsa’s manifested caring for Anna allows summer to return, Elsa gains full command of her magic so that she can create winter effects as needed (for example, providing Olaf with his personal “frost zone” to keep him from melting during the restored warmth), and Anna finally gets to share that lover’s kiss with Kristoff after all.  As usual, all problems are solved (although there are plenty of unanticipated-plot-twists to keep viewers of all ages from getting bored with expected-events), harmony returns to the land, and we leave the theater aglow in lovely imagery (such as is provided in this accompanying photo).  Beyond the rescue-by-caring-rather-than-kissing-plotline there’s certainly nothing unexpected in Frozen, but what’s there is crafted in painstaking detail (although a bit purposely abstracted, calling for a memory—for me at least—of the Disney widescreen visual triumph Sleeping Beauty [Clyde Geronimi, 1959], which is set for a live-action revival in June 2014 with Angelina Jolie as the horrid evil fairy named Maleficent [Robert Stromberg]; watch the trailer if you like), providing a gorgeous set of locales from the seashore harbor of Arendelle’s capital city to the snow-covered mountains where Elsa takes refuge, building an ice palace for herself that’s a wonder to behold (coming to life at her command a bit like the generated-from-ice-Fortress of Solitude in the now-long-ago-beginnings of displaced-Kryptonian Kal-El in the era when special-effects-technology could first reasonably tell his complex story in Superman [Richard Donner, 1978]).  Songs are used effectively to reveal character emotions and move the story along in Frozen so that it would qualify as a full musical, but there are also plenty of scenes of swirling action that should satisfy the fantasy desires of all ages attending this movie (including the humorous troll characters who disguise themselves as rocks)Frozen doesn’t fully rise to the soaring heights of Disney’s somewhat-newer-generation-classics such as Beauty and the Beast (Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale, 1991) or The Lion King (Rob Minkoff, Roger Allers, 1994) but it’s exceedingly-well-done, a most pleasant diversion, and a worthy contender for this year’s Animated Feature Oscar (but I can’t really say how it stacks up against the competition in that I haven’t seen any of the others yet).  For my last musical metaphor to close us out here, I’ll turn to the phrase that the citizens of Arendelle so longed to hear during their frigid ordeal, “Here Comes the Sun” (from the Beatles’ 1969 Abbey Road album) at eKIkvnAis with the original singers but some—goofy at times—animated imagery added (of a far-different quality than what you find in Frozen); there are more impressive visuals at http://www., but the music is from a (reasonably-sounding) tribute band rather than the actual Fab Four.  Then, just for further variety’s sake here’s a live performance of the song by composer George Harrison at with help from Ringo Starr, Elton John, Phil Collins, and Eric Clapton.  Finally, to bring all of this to a close here’s a posthumous tribute to Harrison, with a very mellow version of the song performed by Paul Simon, David Crosby, and Graham Nash at SIC2U from the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concert at Madison Square Garden, October 29, 2009.  I hope all of this sunshine keeps you warm and happy (but not in a drought state such as we’re now suffering in California) until we meet again for more fun with film.

If you’d like to know more about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit here are some suggested links: (a much longer than usual trailer, 4:13, which gives a nice sense of the active nature of the movie; this clip shows the complete assassination attempt when Ryan attempts to check into his Moscow hotel then switches to more standard quick inclusions; then, just for kicks, here’s a short clip [2:13] at of Ellen DeGeneres’ fake insertion of herself into the hotel kill attempt scene above)

If you’d like to know more about Frozen here are some suggested links: (3:39, “Let It Go” scene featuring the Oscar-nominated Original Song, written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, sung by Idina Menzel as Queen Elsa)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

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P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. First, I agree that the BBC/PBS Sherlock miniseries is far better than the latest Jack Ryan production...I am amazed that Sherlock can exceed most of Hollywood's often sad attempts to reboot formulas, while still being offered free over the air.

    Second, my Best Movie sequencing would replace the critically praised Gravity with the more down to earth Philomena. I suppose reality (or even possibility) means more to me than a scientifically improbable space shuttle drama, even if Gravity does have exceptional special effects. Maybe if they had produced Gravity while it was still flying and not being towed through LA by a Toyota...

    Finally, while Scarlett Johannson and Sandra Bullock are both creditable actresses in the right vehicle, voiceovers and eyes peering out of spacesuits don't quite equate to my idea of superior acting.

    Otherwise, another nice job and let's see the predictions!

    "Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may." Plato

  2. Hi rj, my learned co-conspiator. Thanks as always for your insightful comments, even where we disagree slightly. Now that I've fairly well indicated where I wish the chips might have fallen for the major Oscar categories I'll still need to offer some official predictions on actual winners, but I'll save that for late Feb. when the buzz is the loudest.

    By the way, probably no review during the week of Jan. 26-Feb.1 because I haven't found anything playing currently that encourages me to spend my cash, so I'll hold out for Winslet and Brolin when Labor Day opens here next weekend. Ken