Film Reviews

By Tom Demerly


The greatest fear I had going into Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was that it would be a sad eulogy to Tom Clancy’s genius. I’m pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Director Kenneth Branagh did his homework and borrowed subtle and successful elements from each of the Jason Bourne, James Bond, Mission Impossible and Tom Clancy franchises to weave a surprisingly good story thread that is visually well done.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a tight and snappy spy thriller. It’s well written, tightly shown and quickly paced. Camera, sound and production techniques are tasteful and pay homage to its influences. Very little is over blown. Even the sets are well dressed and chosen.

Writers David Koepp and Adam Cozad used Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan with reverence for Clancy’s original vision of Dr. Ryan, the nerdy analyst turned reluctant but capable action hero.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Chris Pine as Jack Ryan is fantastic as is Kevin Costner as Thomas Harper, his CIA boss. And because no great spy film is a success without great villains, it is a pleasure to have Kenneth Branagh as the dangerous Russian, Viktor Cherevin.

The plot hits ominously close to home, literally and figuratively, with a story line that weaves into the little known world of economic warfare. Villains originate from Dearborn, Michigan in the shadow of Ford World Headquarters. The plan is to crash the stock market in a combined terror and economic attack; a scenario everyone hopes will remain fiction.

But Tom Clancy’s fiction has an ominous way of weaving its way into the headlines.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit never sags and builds well to a strong climax. There are a few corny moments but remember, this isn’t a strict Clancy plot. It weaves influences from every corner of the spy thriller genre, and does it with respect and tribute to each. While these stories do become somewhat cookie-cutter this one is flavored uniquely and with enough craft to make it a snappy 105-minutes. And yes, there is a sequel planned that hopefully continues with this fine cast in the upcoming Without Remorse.

Tom Clancy would have loved Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It is tight, quick and nice looking. This is a pleasant surprise after the painful loss of a great author and storyteller who created these characters. That new writers are able to execute on Clancy’s vision confirms their talent and reverence for his mastery.

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in "Shadow Recruit".

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in “Shadow Recruit”.

By Tom Demerly.


Early July 2005: I was in the car. CNN was on. There was a report of a “U.S. long range reconnaissance team lost in Afghanistan”. They went to a commercial.

I pictured what must have been going on. Marine recon, Army Special Forces, Naval Special Warfare, Air Force Special Operations. It was one or some combination of them.  They had no comms, they were cut off, they may be lost, their food was gone. They may not even be alive by the time it made the news.

In the mid to late 1980’s I was a member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team, Co. F., 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Michigan National Guard. I was the scout/observer for our five man reconnaissance team.  We never saw combat then. But the sense of being a long way from home, cold, wet, hungry and with no communications is a very familiar one. Our radios never worked. We rarely got comms. We often walked home, even on training missions.

In 2007 when Marcus Luttrell wrote his book Lone Survivor I read it in one sitting, and didn’t sleep well for days. His account of a long range surveillance mission gone bad is harrowing and realistic.


“Lone Survivor” author Marcus Luttrell signs his new book “Service”. Luttrell’s incredible account of Operation Red Wings deserved a better film adaptation.

This weekend Director Peter Berg’s adaptation of Lone Survivor hit theaters. Berg is the mastermind behind the impressive and haunting film The Kingdom from 2007.

Berg executes the complex story of Operation Red Wings told in Luttrell’s Lone Survivor with the level of authenticity you expect for a 121-minute Hollywood movie. There are moments when the film “works”, sort of. But for the most part it is clunky, forced and unrealistic feeling.

Berg may get a pass because faithfully depicting the horror of a small recon team retreating down a cliff side in the high Afghan mountains of Kunar Province is technically demanding. But remember Steven Spielberg’s D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, a scene so real it makes you recoil in terror and smell the cordite, exhaust fumes and gore. Even Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down, while very “Hollywood-ized” provides a more authentic and vertiginous sense of what combat must be like. Both Saving Private Ryan and Blackhawk Down “feel” more realistic. Lone Survivor relied too heavily on bad set dressing, rotten camera movement, poor make-up and a generally inauthentic “look” to deliver.


The cast of “Lone Survivor” look more like an airsoft convention than a Long Range Surveillance Team.

The shape and storyline of Lone Survivor is good but the look and feel is shallow and contrite. There is so much “punch” and terror to this story it could have been done better. The digital effects, especially of aircraft and wide scenes, are embarrassingly poor by current standards. Lone Survivor simply looked “hurried” and synthetic. The make-up effects of wounds and blood looked like something you’d see in a Halloween haunted house. Even after three days of a long range reconnaissance patrol the characters didn’t look authentically dirty and grimy.

Another nick against Lone Survivor is that the “Afghanis” didn’t look like they lived in the mountains of Kunar Province. They looked like people from an L.A. cattle call for “Afghan” extras for a film shoot. For reference on how to get it right look at the realistic pirate depictions in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips . Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman were authentic and believable in their roles as Somali pirates, in no small part because they are from Somalia.

Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor is not a total failure. The audience in the theater spontaneously applauded when the credits rolled, so it got their attention. But it isn’t the authentic and horrifying insight into Long Range Surveillance and Marcus Luttrell’s incredible book that I had hoped for.

By Tom Demerly.

Like a modern James Dean, Paul Walker starred in hot rod movies, lived his character and tragically died as his character.

Like a modern James Dean, Paul Walker starred in hot rod movies, lived his character and tragically died as his character.

Paul Walker, a modern day James Dean, died tragically in a fiery car accident Saturday in Valencia, California at age 40. The parallels between his life and predecessor “B” movie film icon James Dean are uncanny.

The “B” movie hot rod genre and male heartthrob is as much a cliche as the tragic, too early death of both Walker and Dean.

Walker was a modern day James Dean.

Walker was a modern day James Dean.

Walker stared in the Fast and Furious series of action movies that brought back hot rodding in the form of modern “tuner” cars and introduced a generation to the bad-boy car movie. The poodle skirts and drive-ins have been replaced by yoga pants and Uggs at the local megaplex, but the theme of hot cars, hot boys and hot girls has stayed rock solid. Now the ending is even the same.

Walker was oddly perfect in his roles. In Into The Blue Walker was perfect as the buff beach and dive bum who courted a ravishing Jessica Alba and found a fortune in lost drug money under the waves. The cute little movie is fun and captivating. It’s cheesy appeal spans all age categories and melts the heart of even the snootiest critic. Walker’s movies are a guilty pleasure.

"Into the Blue" was sexy, adventurous and romantic. A perfect role for Walker.

“Into the Blue” was sexy, adventurous and romantic. A perfect role for Walker.

Walker created an aspirational look that included natural handsomeness, an easy surf-dude persona and an incredible build. His acting was convincing and real in the roles he played best, the hot-guy hard man who was an outward bad-boy come hero.

His loss is a significant one as he showed promise and versatility that may have suited new roles well. It is a sad, tragic loss that cements him as legend, will vault his films into recirculation but tragically takes his niche’ talent from us way too soon and way before he was able to share more of his gifts for character and drama.

By Tom Demerly.


Captains Philips is tense and dramatic, with a sense of pacing and realism that holds you hostage.

Director Paul Greengrass has married the elements of realism, drama and film style to build a depiction of the 2009 pirate seizure of the U.S. flagged container ship Maersk Alabama off the East African coast that resulted in a high seas hostage crisis with its Captain, Richard Philips.

From the terse, abrupt opening pace that makes brilliant use of not showing Tom Hanks’ entire face as Captain Philips in any of the first scenes to the nervous dialogue, Greengrass speaks to the detachment and fear of America toward the boiling tensions of West Africa. The discussion of fears about terrorism and piracy are vague, nearly absent, like our own awareness and detachment from things that only happen “over there”.

The real container ship Maersk Alabama.

The real container ship Maersk Alabama.

Another masterful depiction is the Somali pirate camp and the pirates themselves.  Somali Barkhad Abdi is frighteningly authentic in the role of Muse, the lead pirate. He should be. Abdi is a Somali from Mogadishu who immigrated to the U.S. after being smuggled out of Somalia. He attended the University of Minnesota and answered an open casting call for Captain Philips that landed him and three of his friend roles as the pirates.

The scenes in Somalia are shot in a grainy sepia with shaky camera movements that suggest chaos and unrest. Pan back to the U.S. scenes shot in serenity and with a steady cam and you have a rich visual contrast. These visual elements play over a soundtrack that is large, dark and ominous. The strong score looms in the background then rises to build tension in key scenes. It is a subtle but effective use of the musical score.

Scenes of the pirate takedown of the Maersk Alabama are authentic and rife with real-world action. The supporting cast of the Maersk’s crew holds up the story with a more than adequate depiction of the tension during the boarding and their impressive mastery of the situation during the standoff. Pacing here is snappy and never gets bogged down.


Barkhad Abdi is authentic in the role of the lead pirate. He should be, he is a Somali ex-pat who studied in the U.S.

The film transitions heavily once Captain Philips is taken hostage on the ship’s ocean going lifeboat. The desperation and hopelessness begins to erode the composure of everyone crammed into the little vessel. The open ocean scenes must have had significant cooperation from the U.S. Navy, especially when the U.S.S. Bainbridge and the U.S.S. Halyburton arrive on station. Few scenes are as inspiring as a U.S. Arleigh Burke class destroyer cutting a fast turn toward harm’s way.

The movie changes briskly to U.S. Navy SEALs parachuting into the ocean to board the Bainbridge and supervise the negotiation for the release of Capt Philips. Again, the depiction has a documentary feel to it and the action is tense and quick. A keen trick of the filmmaking was to build the pace consistently until the climax happens with a shock like quality that adds realism to an already eyewitness experience. It’s over before you know it.

The film ramps up the tension as Captain Philips is trapped aboard the lifeboat with the Somalis.

The film ramps up the tension as Captain Philips is trapped aboard the lifeboat with the Somalis.

Greengrass and Hanks save the best for last as the closing scene is a masterwork of acting by Tom Hanks. His depiction of Captain Philips back on the ship is so real it is disturbing to see.

Captain Philips is a great film and a very capable record of the events as reported in the Maersk Alabama piracy. We get an interesting look at the Naval Special Warfare sniper control system and what feels like an accurate depiction of the incident. It’s also good film craft made stronger by Tom Hanks’ typically great acting. In this role as Philips he is at his best ever. Add to this the authenticity of the Somali characters and the movie combines tense drama with documentary realism into a great film that is absolutely more than worthy of seeing.

By Tom Demerly.

rush_2660573bRon Howard’s RUSH is solidly one of the greatest films ever made, and perhaps the single best sporting film ever. It delivers you to the winner’s circle of epic excitement with intimate drama between iconic heroes.

There are two kinds of human contests: racing and warfare. What Gladiator and Saving Private Ryan did for drama and war, RUSH does for racing. There has never been a film this distinctly excellent and theatrical about any kind of sport. RUSH follows the story of racing rivals Niki Lauda, an exacting Austrian with the precise demeanor of an engineer and the wildly contrasting playboy Englishman James Hunt, his nemesis in the 1976 Formula 1 racing season.

Formula 1 is theater and RUSH is theater about theater. RUSH mainlines the classic themes of drama: danger, love, envy, loss, fear and redemption. It does so with excellent technical authenticity and careful reverence- albeit some historical license. And despite some heavy-handed sepia toning and a lack of real on-track camera work RUSH touches the hot buttons of F1 with incredible sound, vertiginous special effects and visuals. Because RUSH is a film for technical freaks (but not to the exclusion of all others) there is careful attention to on-track technical accuracy. But in the great craft of making movies for everyone in the audience Howard has built a film that will also thrill your wife or girlfriend.

RUSH moderates the pacing of on track action and back-story drama with seamless dexterity, a remarkable feat for the writing and editing crew. The movie is beautifully paced and builds to a massive climax then settles with an absolute masterpiece epilogue.

An intricate part of RUSH is the remarkable casting.  Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt and Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda are so precisely cast they interchange almost seamlessly with footage of the real Hunt and Lauda toward the end of the film.


The murky sepia processing of some scenes in RUSH does get tedious but doesn’t detract from the masterful tapestry of storytelling.

The vintage feel of RUSH, while a bit overdone, does trace the beginnings of the modern age of Formula 1 with fairytale quality. You see it as we remember it, in grainy flashbacks and muted hues. The frightening accident sequences depict the time dilation you’ll recognize from any car accident you’ve been in. If you have ever raced anything this movie is mainlining adrenaline.

An integral part of the movie and one of the key layers is Lauda dealing with fear after his crash and moderating the adversarial relationship with Hunt. Both these themes thread the perfect tapestry through Ron Howard’s masterful direction and Peter Morgan’s fine script writing. The themes are reinforced with a bit of fiction though. The punch-up between Hunt and a reporter never happened. Some aspects of Hunt and Lauda’s face offs are more directly attributed to them than they were recorded in real life. It isn’t documentary, but it is great storytelling. Each theme is executed with craft and elegance missing from all but the greatest movies. RUSH is a masterpiece that transcends filmmaking eras it is so perfect.

Rush_Niki Lauda crash scene

A photo of the actual crash with Niki Lauda in the 1976 German Gran Prix at the Nürburgring.

Ron Howard is lucky to have such an incredible, true drama as the conflict between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in 1976. He does not squander the gift of this story in RUSH. For those looking to RUSH as an inspirational tale pray to God we all have a James Hunt to our Niki Lauda.

While RUSH stops just short of being a perfect movie due to the overused film toning and a lack of real on-track camera work it is over the top as a perfect drama and amazing human story. The combination works like no other sports movie I’ve seen.  If you don’t’ get a rush from RUSH you belong in a morgue.

zerodarkthirty80Tight and tense, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a masterwork of espionage and special operations storytelling.  Disturbing out of the gate the film is a non-celebratory thriller that will leave audiences with an uneasy sense of semi-relief. Bigelow did not build a “rah-rah, gung-ho” action ode to Bin Laden’s demise, but rather visited the themes of fear and desperation that pervaded much of the military and intelligence community in the immediate post-9/11 era.

Bigelow’s tale isn’t a documentary or factual depiction of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.  Significant license was taken with the story presumably in the interest of great moviemaking. The fictional story based on the decade long search for the world’s most wanted terrorist is brilliantly executed though. You will want to brace yourself for troubling depictions of torture and violence. You will also thrill to the brilliant computer generated infiltration scene on the way to the raid and the frightening authenticity of the raid scene itself. The haunting appearance of these scenes is testimony to Bigelow’s beginnings as a painter. The look of this film, especially the raid depiction, feels authentic and nervous.

Zero Dark Thirty begins with a reality check. Many people, especially those removed from it, have become complacent in their attitudes toward terrorism in the post-9/11 world. The opening re-acquaints us in a subtle but disturbing way. It also ramps up the tension for the rest of the film, a long one at 2 hours 37 minutes.  The length of the film is a part of its mise-en-scene since it drives home the protracted nature of finding Bin Laden.

You are quickly acquainted with the fictional character Maya, an auburn-haired CIA analyst obsessed with finding Bin Laden.  Jessica Chastain carries the character very well. In the more literal sense Maya is likely not based on one person, but represents an amalgam of people who worked to find patterns in intelligence that eventually led to Bin Laden. The film has taken criticism for this, including from the CIA’s top levels, but distilling a complex intelligence operation that lasted a decade into two and a half hours necessitates this license.


Jason Clarke’s character, Dan, enters the story and carries the majority of the interrogation scenes. His character is angry and hardened, determined to get results and desensitized to the enhanced interrogation techniques shown in the film. Even he, however, dials back as Maya continues her relentless effort to crack the puzzle of Bin Laden’s hiding place.

The hazy puzzle of spy craft unfolds largely dependent on the information extracted from informants as they succumb to torture and bribery. There are a smattering of factual parallels including a terrible bomb attack that takes the lives of several CIA operatives and contractors. This may be one reason Washington isn’t thrilled with Zero Dark Thirty; some of it hits pretty close, some of it is fabricated. This isn’t all or even most of how Bin Laden was found. That the rest of the tale isn’t included is a matter of expedience but also a significant documentary omission. Remember, this is a great movie, not a documentary.

The story grates on with reasonable pace but also a sense of the duration of the search until Maya connects the dots and manages to threaten superiors to take her seriously. She eventually wins an audience with (then) CIA Director Leon Panetta, played by James Gandolfini. I feel a little bad for Panetta since Gandolfini doesn’t do him justice and is much more overweight that the Former Director. That’s Hollywood.


There is a massive fast forward to the Groom Lake Test Range where the other stars of the film; the super-secret stealth Blackhawk helicopters, are unveiled.  Popular media does not know what these helicopters actually looked like since only an intact tail rotor section remained at the site of the raid after one helicopter crashed. The inspiration for the appearance of the “stealth hawks” (or whatever they’re really called) came largely from a talented Italian aviation artist and expert David Cenciotti.  Cenciotti’s blog, “The Aviationist”, ran his depiction of what he thought the helicopters may look like, borrowing design and technology themes from the F-117 Nighthawk including “faceting” and the serrated edges of canopy framing. Bigelow and her crew deserve further recognition for creatively interpreting the sound of these helicopters in the film, said to be significantly quieter than a conventional Blackhawk. The effect is haunting and feels authentic. The actual flight crews of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), the “Night Stalkers”, are probably convulsing in laughter though. We probably won’t know for quite a while.

Depictions of the special operations team in the film, a unit of U.S. Naval Special Operations known in the media as “SEAL Team 6” or “DEVGRU” (for “Development Group”) were administered by one of the best technical advisors Hollywood has ever known, a West Coast SEAL named Chief Mitchell Hall. Hall owns a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for combat actions in the Teams. He’s also an accomplished triathlete and no stranger to film. Hall appears in the film as one of the operators on the raid as well as consulting on technical accuracy. As a result the raid scene “feels” very real. A minor technical gaff may be when an Operator recovers a Kalashnikov assault rifle from Bin Laden’s room during the raid. The rifle shown in the movie is different from the shortened “AKSU” version Bin Laden was normally seen with. Another minor miss may include the depiction of “Cairo”, the explosive detection dog that accompanied the raid. Cairo is a Belgian Malinois, the dog in the movie looked like a German Sheppard.


Technicalities aside the raid scene itself is masterful filmcraft. It does leave out the dramatic refueling in the wadi and the extensive back-up assets that joined the mission, such as the big MH-47E Chinooks, but the haunting sounds of the stealth helicopters and the look of the scenes are interpreted artfully if not accurately. A brilliant effect is the use of showing you the scene from the operators’ perspective through green tinted night vision in key cuts.  Bigelow manipulates the tension so effectively you’ll have a mostly empty seat by the time the SEALs take off for the raid.

If you’re looking for a documentary on the raid to capture Osama bin Laden this movie isn’t it. There is still a need for that media. If you are looking for a tense Hollywood thriller based on a factual story, Zero Dark Thirty delivers like no other film in the espionage and special operations category.  Either way, this masterpiece will terrify and transport you. It’s a fitting tribute to the intelligence services and an acknowledgement of their sacrifice and struggle. It’s also a bold-faced commentary on the controversy surrounding the era. There is so much to take from Zero Dark Thirty that it will likely do even better in DVD sales than in the theater when it hits widespread release. Devote the time to see Zero Dark Thirty; you’ll come away fatigued from the tension of a factual story interpreted in a fictional film with masterful skill.

By Tom Demerly.

“Argo” provides a fitting tribute to our Intelligence Services along with a great ride.

Bam! Out of the park. Argo delivers. In as subtle and dignified a way as Hollywood ever gets this may be the single best film ever on the U.S. intelligence service and what field officers do, or so we hear. It’s also a great period piece made even more relevant by the Global War on Terror.

Argo is the pretty-close-to-true, if it is true, they’d tell us but they’d have to… story of a recently declassified operation to bring U.S. hostages out of Iran in 1979 before the failed hostage rescue mission, Operation Eagle Claw. Tense and technical, it is a tight and terrifying tear through Tehran to a time-sensitive near tragedy that ends in triumph.

Like the spy business itself subtlety is a part of the craft to Argo. That subtlety lends an authentic feel to the portrayal of the real-life lead character, CIA Field Officer and Intelligence Star recipient Anthony Mendez, by Ben Affleck.  Affleck was flat as Jack Ryan in the film adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears because Jack Ryan is a fictional character that Clancy built with a more dynamic personality. The real-life Mendez, as with most intelligence officers, was likely more opaque and aloof.  Affleck may be a one-trick pony as the strong, quizzical type and the Mendez character is that trick to perfection. Sprinkle in some truly great, and more animated, characters executed by John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood execs who agree to craft a bogus film production as a cover story for the extraction and you have an incredible cast.

Ben Affleck’s subtle personality and monotone find perfection as a CIA case officer in “Argo”.

Argo does resort to some clichés in the bottom few minutes but the build-up is so skillful and cumulative it still works to perfection. You’ve seen this closing scene in Where Eagles Dare among others but you haven’t seen it like this.

As a time capsule Argo is worthwhile even though it is fiction purported to be based on fact. The film captures the tension and stalemate of the Iran Hostage Crisis with skill. The usual period newsreel footage is woven with late ’70’s-perfect wardrobe, hair and set dressing. The script and direction are strong despite a couple of clichés granted for effective storytelling.

In a “documentary” sense, even though it’s not, Argo captures the flailing of any intelligence service that is pushed outside its comfort zone during crisis. It does so with dignity and respect to the intelligence services and those who serve in them while remaining vibrant and action-packed.  Argo is to the CIA what Spielberg’s Munich is to the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. It also illustrates how volatile a political system with a history of turbulence can be although any depiction of uprising in the Middle East misses the back story that sometimes makes the region look like a perpetual flashpoint.

If you are a fan of the intrigue/spy/thriller genre you’ll love Argo. It adds delightfully to the category and uniquely to the Hollywood catalog of CIA depictions. Although only based on fact it’s still a nice historical start point for discussion of the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Hopefully interest in this era and the current Global War on Terror will lead to great films about the failed Iran hostage rescue mission that drove the U.S. to rebuild its Special Operations forces and create the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). There is even a great book to spin a script off of, The Guts to Try by former U.S. Air Force Officer James Kyle.  And while Hollywood is at it, they need to cover Ken Follett’s contracted account of the Ross Perot funded rescue of Paul Chiapparone and Bill Gaylord from a Tehran prison during the same era. The mission was led by one of the men responsible for modern Army Special Operations, Arthur “Bull” Simons, who led the raid on Son Tay prison during the Vietnam conflict. This past four decades has enough incredible true espionage and special operations tales to keep Hollywood busy for the next 30 years and Argo is part of those remarkable tales.

By Tom Demerly.

Get ready for an ordeal with a pay-off at the end in “Life of Pi”.

There are very few movies I am tempted to walk out of, but Life of Pi was one of them. The movie and the story are both an ordeal. I’m glad I stayed though.To appreciate Life of Pi you must have lived some personal version of the fable. If you have it’s worth the trip.

Life of Pi is a classic transitional and survival tale that follows a lad named Pi through his intellectual and spiritual coming of age then a dreadful shipwreck as the main story develops. You know the end at the beginning, some of it at least, so I’m not spoiling anything for you. The movie relies heavily on symbolism to the point of tedium, until the plot pays off in the final few minutes with a truly amazing sleight of storytelling. And that is why I’m glad I stayed.

Based on a book of the same name released in 2001 and shopped around from director to director Life of Pi wound up in Ang Lee’s hands after being considered by the eccentric M. Night Shyamalan. I’ll suggest a version under Shyamalan’s quirky direction would have been the final nail in the coffin for this story. Lee’s interpretation was its best chance short of Steven Spielberg or perhaps Richard Zemeckis who directed the well done Tom Hanks film Castaway of similar plot but different ending. Hollywood reviewers haven’t given Life of Pi much of a chance but audience reviews may prove them wrong. In hard times a movie like this will resonate. Viewer reviews have trended to four star territory even in the crowded holiday movie market.

There are three distinct visual styles in the film. The first is a beautiful and lilting mise-en-scene rich in pastel sepia that provides a gentle and reverent basis.  It has a travelogue quality I liked.  As the story shifts to adulthood it becomes more journalistic then back to stylistic during a tender first love.

Then it gets weird.

A 3D version of Life of Pi was showing at the same time as the normal one I saw. Thinking back after the non-3D version I can see how 3D may have added to the visuals in the bulk of the movie. Critics who saw the 3D version were positive about the effect saying it was used tastefully. I didn’t miss it since good camera work and lavish special effects carry the conventional version well along with the wild twist at the end.

The main body of the film charts Pi’s ordeal on a lifeboat with some unlikely companions. It becomes tense and stressful. Then it becomes downright painful. During one scene I had to convince myself to stay it was so difficult to watch. The only reason I did was in the hopes of some pay-off, some redemption.

An unlikely feature of Life of Pi is its addition to the body of survival literature. The movie teaches textbook survival lessons both technical and behavioral. It harkens to a few epic survival tales such as the book Survive the Savage Sea and a favorite of mine, Kon Tiki. There are lessons in how to survive, cope and go beyond mere survival in Life of Pi. For anyone who may rely on survival skills the film delivers on two levels, technically and with the strange twist at the end that teaches a valuable lesson.

The degree to which this movie works will depend on your own life experience. If you are a survivor, it will resonate and the ending will deliver. If not, it is just a tedious fable until a long-winded pay-off that may not be worth the wait.When you sit down in the theater you’re risking the two hours to see if that pay-off is worth it. For me it was, but I’m an easy sell for survival stories and its metaphors were a gut punch to someone who loves animals. After being pummeled by the harrowing scenes in the middle of the story I really wanted something in return. I came away entirely satisfied, both glad I stayed and glad I didn’t miss Life of Pi.

By Tom Demerly.

While some of the digital effects and scenes in “Red Dawn” are cumbersome the movie does have merit in the recessionary and post 9/11 era.

Remakes usually bomb. They almost always bomb when they’re a remake of a film that was quirky or marginal to begin with. They may have a chance if there is a relevant cultural change that reframes the plot between the original and the remake. That is the case with the new Red Dawn. Things have changed that make this film work oddly well. Red Dawn is a remake of the 1984 movie of the same name with Patrick Swayze and Lea Thompson, both credible actors even before Swayze started dancing.

I have a unique relationship with the original Red Dawn since it was released when I was in U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Fort Benning had three movie theaters then. All three were playing Red Dawn, and only Red Dawn. Every showing was sold out.  We were soldiers then, and young, new to the military and hot off the successful invasion of Grenada. The fictional prospect of being able to fight the Russians (and Mexicans, oddly enough in the first film) made us feel like we were “ministers of death, praying for war” (Full Metal Jacket).  We saw it over and over, debating the tactics, the weapons, the plausibility.

Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen in the original “Red Dawn” from 1984.

On 9/11 we got our war.

The original Red Dawn was written with technical insights from the insurgent war in Afghanistan. Not the one we’re in now, the one before that. It seems we had found a hero of sorts in that war, a courageous and charismatic tall sheik who fought the Russians in the high mountains of Afghanistan. Patrick Swayze’s character in Red Dawn 1984 was inspired by him. His name was Osama bin Laden. Osama eventually fell from U.S. favor in about the biggest way possible and another movie about his inevitable appointment with a red-haired CIA lass and some Navy SEALs is due out next month. You already know how that ends.

Red Dawn 1984 didn’t resonate much beyond the military and right-wing NRA audience since there wasn’t much to hold it up then. The Berlin wall came down in 1989 and Reagan was taking care of those pesky Soviets who would fall altogether in 1991. The entire prospect of an attack on U.S. soil was too farfetched to prop up a story. Until 9/11.

The new Red Dawn leverages not only a post-9/11 realization that the world is indeed, very small, we’re only a short plane ride away from the Global War on Terror.  It also leverages something Adolf Hitler did maniacally in Germany in 1936.  A terrible economy.  Red Dawn 2012 demonizes the North Koreans, the primary villains of the film and depicts them offering respite from a bad economy after they invade. Like Hitler did when he invaded France and Poland. In a sinister way the plot works if you understand the historical context.

I shot this photo on my cell phone on the set of the “Red Dawn” remake in downtown Detroit. The recessionary downtown auto capital was mostly abandoned. After the GM bankruptcy Chinese banners gave the city an eerie feel.

What is even more haunting about the film is that the original villain in Red Dawn 2012 was not the North Koreans, it was the Chinese. The plot would have worked even better with the Chinese invading. Apparently, a little too good for Chinese political sensitivities. Most of the Chinese stuff had to be digitally replaced with North Korean stuff when the Chinese media got a hold of the plot for Red Dawn 2012 and had a fit. Since the film is intended for international release and a big part of the audience is in Asia the idea of having the Chinese invade the U.S. was a little too prickly for the Asian market and for the studio execs who sweated over threats of boycott.

Red Dawn 2012 itself is not a bad action movie. It gets going quickly and the pace remains spritely.  Some of the opening special effects are unconvincing as is a lot of the plot. How did the Chinese, I mean, North Koreans, get all those transports and paratroopers into U.S. airspace without a big fight? What happened to our military? Those are pesky details that get in the way of wrapping your mind around the prospect of the Chinese… sorry, North Koreans getting in a bunch of airplanes and flying over here to parachute into Anytown, USA. That part is a big stretch. The depictions of urban combat, an insurgent war, the doctrine of guerilla warfare and even most of the technical details aren’t bad. In fact, they are a little haunting. There are a couple of scenes in Red Dawn where the kids who form the U.S. guerilla insurgency begin to question the wisdom of what they are doing. To understand the bad guys in the Global War on Terror simply insert a scene here where they are reminded of their religious conviction and now you understand much of the Middle East insurgency. Spooky. There is even a weird little vignette when a free American radio broadcast transmits “…the chair is against the wall”. It’s the same code Free French partisans broadcast in a scene from the D-Day invasion film, The Longest Day.

A connection I share with the new Red Dawn is that, while the movie is set on the U.S. West coast it was mostly shot in Detroit, Michigan. I lived in Detroit then. My friends and I rode our bikes to downtown Detroit where the movie was being shot and took cell phone photos of the giant Chinese Communist Party banners hanging from downtown buildings, sandbag bunkers and TOW missile launchers. It was weird to see that, especially when GM had just filed bankruptcy and most of Detroit was abandoned. In a way the film’s plot became… oddly relevant.

The fact that the Chinese wielded so much influence over Red Dawn and what it showed may suggest we need the Wolverines, the American good guys in the movie, in Hollywood a little sooner than we thought.

Red Dawn 2012 has enough going for it that it’s worth a look if you’ve already seen the new Bond blockbuster Skyfall  and have some interest in the historical influences and controversy about the Chinese in Red Dawn. Those things and a good, “B” grade action shoot-’em-up may make the movie worthwhile despite some weaknesses.

The twenty-third installment in the James Bond film franchise, Skyfall, debuted last week in the U.S. to strong reviews and packed houses. It’s worthy of the praise as one of the best Bond films ever.

Skyfall is a long-awaited oasis for Bond fans, with numerous references to previous Bond films, beautiful visuals, and all the clichés James Bond movies are known for- but better. Skyfall reenergizes the Bond franchise with great plot, fantastic cinematography and opulent visual style. What is noteworthy about Skyfall is that, unlike some Bond films, it actually does elevate the Bond film franchise to a much-needed new level while paying homage to the existing films in a subtle and dignified way. Add incredible visuals and you have a holiday blockbuster and one of the best Bond films ever, a delight following the dingy and depressing Quantum of Solice.

The imagery in Skyfall is captivating, no small feat in the age of advanced computer generated imagery that often looks phony. What sets Skyfall apart is photography, composition and creativity, not just lavish computer generated imagery, which is applied sparingly and convincingly with perhaps one exception, a slightly clunky if typically “Bond” scene when monitor lizards attack Bond and an assailant.

The Bond film franchise is about clichés, some of them Fleming and Bond originated, others quite openly borrowed from other films and other series. Director Sam Mendes and Barbara Broccoli of Bond film fame were obviously influenced by the “Bourne” film series as some of the scenes are a bit  close to beach scenes in Goa, India from The Bourne Supremacy. Nonetheless, those scenes were good for Bourne, and they are good for Bond too. Apparently another cliché of disenfranchised film spies is a temporary respite in the beatnik beach communities of India.

Opening scene stunts, titles and the theme song are a staple of Bond films and this one returns faithfully to the first five-minute formula of previous bond films. The opening stunts are masterful, if borrowed, and refreshingly free of any clunky effects. They wrecked a lot of cars and broke things to film the opening sequence. Opening titles are a treat with Adele’s theme song as a fitting soundtrack, among the very best from previous Bond theme songs. It’s been in the top five songs of the British charts for five weeks. The graphics revisit previous Bond movies and make the avid Bond fan feel at home.

Visuals like this fight scene in front of a giant, deadly jellyfish projected onto a skyscraper in Shanghai make Skyfall a breathtaking treat.

One masterful scene is the brutal fight that unfolds against a massive Portuguese man-of-war laser graphic being projected on a skyscraper in Shanghai. It’s beautiful Bond style. Add to that the sweeping landscapes that are visually opulent in style and composition, such as the arrival scene in Macau, and you have one of the best Bond travelogues ever. Lighting is used in many scenes in place of overblown digital effects to achieve a more elegant and authentic appearance. All of it is done in the stylized visuals Ian Fleming was known for in his writing. Fleming would approve of Skyfall.

The pace of Skyfall is snappy with the typical Bond globetrotting locations shot on location in the United Kingdom, India (where the production crew ran into trouble with the state government early on), China and Turkey.

While nearly all of Skyfall is masterful, Berenice Marlohe misses the mark as a captivating Bond girl in here role as “Severine”.

What is missing from Skyfall is a developed and captivating Bond girl character. While Berenice Marlohe as Severine makes a stab at the mandatory Bond girl cliché role, her character in the movie is minor, somewhat mercifully so, as Marlohe lacks allure and personality as a Bond girl. She is, like some Bond girls, merely a victim.

A character who shares the spotlight with Bond to the greatest degree ever is the previously underused Dame Judy Dench as “M”. Dench is the best “M” in the modern Bond era and interprets the character masterfully across her seven appearances in Bond films as “M”. She takes a more active role in Skyfall and provides a new conduit to the next generation of Bond films.

If you are a Bond fan you will love Skyfall. In the two public screenings I attended the theatre was packed. It was obvious who the Bond fans were from their reaction to scenes with reference to previous films. This Bond has won Bond fans over. The local Hollywood Reporter projected $80M in ticket sales for the opening weekend. For moviegoers who aren’t rampant Bond fans it is an elegant and visual action film that provides a delightful escape and a visual vacation from lesser films. Skyfall adds momentum back to the Bond film series after losing steam with Quantum of Solace and the four-year hiatus from MGM’s financial problems during the recession.

Skyfall is the perfect extension of the Bond series, a worthy celebration of its 50th anniversary and a  must see holiday film. It’s a strong assertion that Bond is, indeed, back.