Jack Ryan, Generic Spy

I got my FREE ticket for this from Best Buy. Using it put me over the top for a FREE soda at Carolina Cinemas so I had a really nice afternoon.

Jack Ryan


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) – Rated PG-13

Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.”

I loved many of Tom Clancy’s novels. I also mourned him before his passing as he had been letting other hacks write his novels for over a decade. While I did not always agree with his assessment of politics, he always had good reason for going in the direction he did. While Jack Ryan was his main protagonist, many many other characters served heroic roles in his novels, including reader favorites like John Clark and Ding Chavez down to individual secret service personnel.

Three of his best novels had already been adapted to the screen (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger) with varying degrees of success as well as one of his lesser efforts (The Sum of All Fears). Jack Ryan was played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and, now, Chris Pine.

Jack Ryan had plenty of warning bells. It is always a terrible sign to be bumped from a Christmas release to the celluloid graveyard of January. The title, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, smacks of franchise planning. The title is also horrifically generic. Chris Pine makes a great William Shatner but can he act? I enjoyed Carriers but it didn’t really require heavy lifting from Pine.

The movie begins with a couple scenes showcasing Ryan’s character and backstory – I was almost startled that it wasn’t a montage. A lot of what occurs seems intent on setting Ryan up for future sequels.

The first two-thirds of the movie run smoothly. The action is pretty and well-handled but evokes a serious deja vu. If you are going to make an expensive spy movie, then bring something new to the table like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol did (a sandstorm chase, a climb outside the Burj Khalifa, a fight in an automated car park).

Chris Pine is a rather generic hero, in spite of the pedigree they establish for him. Kenneth Branagh makes for a good villain. Keira Knightley is nice too but contrast this with her stunning performance in Anna Karenina.

Extremely minor spoilers (the plot gives this away):

The last act of the film though is ridiculous in the extreme. I won’t post spoilers but knowing that an attack on the U.S. is imminent, some people have to fly from Moscow to the U.S. and apparently, there are no other people in the agency (or any other agency) who can handle this situation.

Jack Ryan is so smart that all answers have to come from him, in spite of the fact that he is a minor analyst/agent in the C.I.A. There is a nice montage as they figure things out but Clancy’s strength was that all efforts, good and evil, require an ensemble of characters. Apparently in the cinema world, a wrench (Jack Ryan) is the answer to all problems, mental or physical.

That’s not to say that Jack Ryan isn’t enjoyable. It just isn’t memorable so go, enjoy, and forget.



Henry V – Shakespeare Week

One of my favorite plays this past outdoor season was The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Merry Wives was written in part because Sir John Falstaff had proven to be a very popular character in the histories. Naturally I chose to go back to one of those histories.

Henry V is currently available on instant Netflix.

Henry V (1989) – Rated PG-13

“Making his directing debut, Kenneth Branagh does William Shakespeare’s play proud in this epic screen adaptation that follows headstrong King Henry V as he leads a heavily outnumbered army into a territorial war against France.”

“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day until the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, Be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition, and gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks, that fought with us upon St. Crispin’s day! “

Above is just a part of the rousing St. Crispian speech. As with any of Shakespeare’s plays, I could go on putting quote after quote. The bard’s facility with language is enviable. Laurence Olivier filmed a wonderful version of Henry V back in 1948 but I daresay that this Kenneth Branagh version is the definitive work.

Derek Jacobi is brilliant as the Chorus and does a wonderful job setting the stage. Branagh has Jacobi flex back and forth from a modern performance of the play to the actual time period. Where such transitions would be problematic, Jacobi is only heard in voiceover.

Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Henry V is electric. He knows exactly when to emphasize and when to underplay lines. Branagh is a man who lives and breathes Shakespeare. His St. Crispian speech is quite rousing.

Everyone else’s performance is spot on. Brian Blessed gives a very nuanced performance as Exeter, not something he is known for. Robbie Coltrane is excellent in his all-too-brief role of Falstaff. Judi Dench makes a great Nell and Emma Thompson has two scenes as Princess Katherine.

The only quibble I have with the film are the battle sequences. Probably due to finances but also because of the nature of plays, the battle scenes are of a much smaller scale than was historically the case. The slaughter of the French by the English longbow (over 3/4 of Henry’s army were longbowmen) is not really given attention here. Then again the sheer will of Henry and his ability to inspire is part of the theme of the play.

Oh wait I have one more quibble. After so thoroughly enjoying Falstaff, Pistol, Corporal Nym, and Bardolph in Merry Wives, I was disheartened to see how few survive Henry V.

People Watch: We missed him entirely but we noticed in the end credits that Christian Bale played Robin the luggage boy.

Aliens Attack! Thor Edition

After several terrible Thor ripoff movies, the real Thor arrives on instant Netflix.

Thor (2011) – Rated PG-13

“In this Marvel Comics-inspired action flick, thunder god Thor finds himself banished by his father, Odin, and forced to live among humans on Earth to learn humility. Can Thor regain his powers and return home?”

In the Marvel comics, they obviously couldn’t have Thor speaking a Norse language. Instead, in order to set him apart, they have Thor and the other Asgardians speaking a form of high English, basically someone’s idea of a cross between courtly manners and dumbed-down Shakespeare.

What could be more fitting for Shakespearean dialogue than to hire as director the man most known for Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh?

Presumably to appease fans, they have shoehorned as many characters as possible into the movie. Besides the obvious Thor, Loki and Jane Foster, we also have Odin, Frigga, Heimdall, Lady Sif, Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun the Grim and The Destroyer.

Although this movie flips back and forth, it can clearly be separated into two parts: those that take place in Asgard and those that take place on Earth.

The Asgard portions are very serious and special effects heavy. They have all the ingredients of Shakespearean tragedy: a noble ruler, an arrogant ungrateful heir to the throne, and a treacherous brother who is second in line to the throne.

In contrast, the Earth portions are light-hearted and poke a lot of fun at Thor. I really liked Kat Dennings as Darcy. She plays the comic relief quite well but some of my friends found her to be abrasive. There is a very nice cameo setting up Hawkeye for The Avengers movie.

Both portions involve a lot of battle action for Thor but this is not a nonstop action fest. The action is good but not especially memorable so it is well that the focus is on Thor himself. Thor is played by the bulked-up and very good looking Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth is not required to show much range here but he is charming, athletic, heroic, and funny.

Tom Hiddleston really nailed the role of the villainous Loki. With this role, he moved from British television to Hollywood. He has since played F. Scott Fitzgerald in the magnificent Midnight in Paris and Captain Nicholls in War Horse. His Loki was so well-received that he played him again in The Avengers and is slated to return in Thor 2 next year.

He is backed up on Earth by Natalie Portman as love interest Jane Foster, Clark Gregg as the ever-present Agent Coulson and Stellan Skarsgard as Erik Selvig. Asgard is overrun by noted thespians: Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Rene Russo (Frigga), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Colm Feore (King Laufey), and Ray Stevenson as Volstagg.

All in all Thor is what it should be – a fun comic book movie.

Don’t Forget: All the Avengers movies have a teaser scene after the credits. Thor’s scene sets up this year’s The Avengers just as the scene after Iron Man 2 teased Thor. As usual look for Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. Comic book fans can keep an eye out during Thor for the Cask of Ancient Winters, a reference to Donald Blake, the Cosmic Cube (aka the Tesseract), and more.

The Goebbels Experiment – Nazis Gone Wild! week

This is Nazis Gone Wild! week. The Goebbels Experiment is currently available on instant Netflix.

PASS: The Goebbels Experiment (2005) – NR – Not rated.

“Reading from the diaries kept by Third Reich propagandist Joseph Goebbels between 1924 and 1945, Kenneth Branagh brings the infamous Nazi spin doctor to life, all the way up to his suicide at the end of World War II. Using this primary source material as their canvas, filmmakers Lutz Hachmeister and Michael Kloft paint a portrait of a 20th century figure who was sometimes a success, sometimes a failure and always fascinating.”

First let me state that this film is far scarier than Dead Snow. As one would expect from the diaries of Joseph Goebbels, there is an abundance of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-Communism. Just listening to the excerpts of his diaries pre-war makes me very uncomfortable.

Goebbels is also thrilled that Max Schmeling beat Joe Louis in 1936. He does not even refer to Louis by name. He calls him the Negro and the black man.

Lutz Hachmeister not only directed but co-wrote and co-produced The Goebbels Experiment. He does an excellent job of pairing appropriate footage with each diary entry. With the very brief exception of a few modern color outdoor shots, the entire film is composed of vintage clips and stills.

Goebbels naturally comes across as supremely self-important. Every good decision was his and every bad one was one that he had argued against.

Hachmeister does omit a lot that is puzzling. The 1936 fight between Schmeling and Louis is covered but not the 1938 rematch. The annexation of the Sudetenland is not even mentioned nor is Neville Chamberlain (except in a late comparison to Churchill).

It seems like one moment they are covering the 1936 Olympics (though no mention of Jesse Owens) and Leni Riefenstahl and then *poof* World War II.

The invasion of Russia is covered. Even though the pre-war American economy is mentioned, their entry into the war is not. Neither is Japan mentioned.

We also jump from 1941 to 1943. Were there no interesting events in the intervening year and a half?

The “Jewish question” is only mentioned tangentially yet for Goebbels this occupied a large part of his time and effort. In point of fact this actually seems to be what is missing in the 1942 segment.

The documentary ends with the suicide of Goebbels on May 1st but this is not stated in any way. They simply show the bodies of Goebbels, his wife and children.

This documentary is fascinating and I recommend it highly for those deeply interested in the subject. Unfortunately, the focus is too narrow and erratic to recommend it in general.

People Watch: While Kenneth Branagh narrated the English version, the original was narrated by noted German actor Udo Samel.