Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How to write good movie reviews

Although I’ve written literally over a thousand reviews about many different products, it’s a fair bet to say that my favorite subject to write about is movies, both theatrical and made-for-TV ones.

It all started when I was struggling to find out which beat or section of my high school student newspaper I wanted to be assigned in.  Because I’d been “drafted” into my first journalism class by my ninth-grade teacher before I even set foot inside South Miami High, I literally felt like a fish out of water in Mr. Gary Bridge’s Newspaper Reporting and Editing class.

Fortunately, we students were issued a huge hardcover textbook that covered all the essential points of a journalism course.  Topics ranged from what a pica and a font are to the thorny issues of what constitutes libel, and somewhere in between there were chapters devoted to each section (News, Features, Sports, Op/Ed) in an average student newspaper.

I browsed through these chapters rather half-heartedly, not really feeling very confident that I’d ever write for the more important News or popular Sports sections.  Ditto for Features, which seemed to call for writers with a better grip on wit and details than I thought I had at the time.

However, when I came to the section on how to write reviews, especially movie reviews, I was a bit more hopeful about my future at the student paper.

I don’t remember the title of the text book nor who wrote it, but in that chapter there was a complete review of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, complete with helpful analysis and “how-to” hints from the author (or authors.)

Though I also can’t remember the review itself – I read it in early September of 1980, after all – I do remember that I adopted certain techniques and rules from it and the textbooks instructions which I still use today in my online reviews.

1.       Draw the reader in with a relevant intro:  This isn’t always easy to do, especially if you’re writing the 10th or 140th review of a well-known movie.  There are ways to help you avoid either sounding like just one more voice in a choir or parroting someone else’s opinion; not reading others’ review on your topic helps, of course, but choosing relevant select details works even better.

2.       Don’t be afraid to show your knowledge:  A good online reviewer knows that he or she has a lot of competitors and different opinions, so it’s best if you use all the tools at your disposal to stand out in a crowd and grab readers’ attention.  You might want to, for instance, take a bit of trivia about a movie or series of movies and carefully inject into a review’s lead, as I did in my review of The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy box set:

“In May of 1999, 22 years after beginning his Star Wars saga in mid-tale with the film he later re-titled Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope, writer-director George Lucas took millions of viewers back to that galaxy far, far away when Lucasfilm Limited and 20th Century Fox released Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”

3.       Avoid complex references within the text of a review:  While a good reviewer strives to be as informative and detailed whenever possible, you must try to adopt a shorthand that can convey a more complex statement without being wordy.

Example, say you want to mention in a review of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back that it was written by the guy who wrote Body Heat and Raiders of the Lost Ark and directed by the guy who helmed The Eyes of Laura Mars.

Clunky: Executive producer George Lucas hired Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote both Body Heat and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to write the screenplay, while to take over as director, he hired Irvin Kershner, best known for The Eyes of Laura Mars.

Now, while you might have a great deal of relevant facts there, that sentence is too long and unwieldy.

Better: To bring The Empire Strikes Back to the big screen, executive producer George Lucas brought in writer Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and director Irvin Kershner (The Eyes of Laura Mars).

4.       Never give away the whole plot or the ending of a movie:  No matter if you’re writing about a new film just starting its first run or a classic such as Gone With the Wind, never, ever summarize more of a plot than the middle of the second act.  Your job as a reviewer is not to tell viewers everything you saw or heard in the movie; it is to sway them to see (or not) the movie or TV show in question.  You have to always assume that you are writing about something your reader has never seen or used before, even if that assumption is wrong.  Spoilers in a review are called that because, well, they spoil a movie goer’s experience by revealing things best left for the audience to discover.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The 10 best WWII movies list

World War II. 

It was the largest and bloodiest conflict in human history, with battles raging on the air, land, and sea from the steppes of the Soviet Union to the steaming jungles of Guadalcanal. Every major world power was a combatant, and after six years of fighting, over 50 million human beings were dead, millions more were wounded or left homeless, and the seeds of the Cold War were planted as the balance of power now shifted to the United States and the Communist-ruled Russia and its unwilling allies in Eastern Europe. 

Naturally, even during the war, World War II became a popular subject for filmmakers in all the warring countries. not only as entertainment but also as part of the war effort; both the Axis and Allied camps infused their wartime films with propaganda, sometimes grossly heavy-handed (such as the Nazis' The Eternal Jew, which stirred up anti-Semitism in Germany and the countries it occupied), sometimes subtly (Casablanca, which on the surface seems to be just a simple love story set in French North Africa, is firmly rooted in the political realities of 1942). 

Wartime movies were also very stylized and cliched. In "combat" movies (Bataan, Guadalcanal Diary), soldiers and Marines were universally brave, often fun-loving but clean-cut fellows, boisterous but well-meaning,and were often depicted as the embodiment of the American "melting pot myth," i.e., there was always a cross-section of ethnic groups -- Polish-Americans, Irish-Americans, guys from Brooklyn or the Deep South, and, more often than not, the lone intellectual who wore reading glasses and spent time reading books rather than gab with the guys about dames. (More often than not, as well, the "Professors" were often dead by the third act of the film....) And sadly, in those days when segregation was the law of the land in the South, blacks were never part of the "melting pot" squads or platoons. 

Postwar movies about World War II slowly but surely morphed from idealized and overly jingoistic "rah rah" flicks that were epitomized by films starring John Wayne (Sands of Iwo Jima, Back to Bataan, Flying Leathernecks, Operation Pacific....) to the more accurate (gory and profanity-laced) depictions of fighting men and women in movies and television miniseries such as Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Windtalkers, and The Great Raid

I've seen many films about the war, most of them "combat films," although a few, like Casablanca and Summer of '42, either deal with the politics or the vagaries of life in the home front. Some are good, most are average, and some (Anzio, Battle of the Bulge, Is Paris Burning?) are plain awful. This list represents 10 of the best World War II movies I've watched. 

1. The Guns of Navarone (1961): Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn. Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean, this action-adventure film follows a small team of Allied saboteurs on a perilous mission to destroy two huge radar-controlled superguns used by the Nazis to deny Allied ships access to a British-occupied island in the Aegean Sea. 

2. From Here to Eternity (1953): Famous for its steamy-for-its time beach lovemaking scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, this adaptation of former GI James Jones' best-selling novel not only depicted life in the Army's Hawaiian Department prior to and during the Japanese strike on Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941, but its success revived Frank Sinatra's moribund acting career. 

3. Run Silent, Run Deep (1958): Forget Operation Pacific (or Operation Petticoat, for that matter); this taut and emotionally charged film version of Edward L. Beach's novel about submarine warfare focuses on the conflict between a submarine commander (Clark Gable) and his executive officer (Burt Lancaster); the skipper is seemingly obsessed with sinking the Japanese destroyer that is sinking U.S. subs in a particular patrol zone, while the exec possibly resents being passed over for command of the sub. 

4. Summer of '42 (1971): This sentimental memoir by writer Herman Raucher and director Robert Mulligan is on the surface a better than average coming-of-age movie about 15-year-old Hermie and his friends Oscy and Benjie, their adolescent exploits on Packett Island, and especially Hermie's desperate love for the beautiful, older, and very married Dorothy. But its setting -- the American home front during that first post-Pearl Harbor summer of 1942 -- and the way Hermie's fondest dream does come true give the viewer a haunting glimpse at the effects of the conflict being waged overseas. 

5. The Longest Day (1962): The Longest Day, Darryl F. Zanuck's ambitious and expensive recreation of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, is one of the best -- if somewhat flawed -- war films ever made. Boasting an all-star cast of 41 "A-List" (for 1962, that is) actors from four countries and filmed in various locations around France (Corsica doubling for most of the five invasion beaches on northern France) and made with the assistance of NATO's armed forces, The Longest Day was, till the filming of Schindler's List, the most expensive movie ever shot in black and white. It's the only major movie to attempt to convey the scope and drama of the D-Day landings from a multinational viewpoint. 

6. A Bridge Too Far (1977): An unofficial sequel to The Longest Day. It's actor/director Sir Richard Attenborough's epic recreation of one of the most controversial battles of World War II, is one of those films that fall under the category of "glorious failure." Like the subject it vividly depicts (Operation Market-Garden, an ambitious and daring attempt by the Allies to secure a crossing over the Rhine River and outflank Germany's fortified defenses), it was a well intentioned and daring endeavor, yet it failed to capture a receptive audience and was quickly forgotten by all but a handful of history buffs and film critics (Judith Crist, a respected reviewer of the time, called A Bridge Too Far the "definitive World War II movie"). 

7. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970): One of the "big budget" semi-documentary war epics in the tradition of The Longest Dayand A Bridge Too Far, this joint Japanese-American production is still the definitive movie about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Based on books by Gordon W. Prange and Ladislas Farago and featuring some of the best battle sequences ever filmed, Tora! Tora! Tora! is a fair and balanced look at one of the most important -- and controversial -- events in American history. 

8. Casablanca (1942): This classic love story set in French Morrocco in December 1941 not only told the bittersweet tale of Rick Blaine, Ilsa Lund, and Victor Laszlo, but also commented on the tangled politics of the pre-Pearl Harbor era: American neutrality, the oppression of the Third Reich, the fate of thousands of Europeans who hit "the refugee trail," and -- personified by Claude Rains' inimitable portrayal of Louis Renault -- the grey zone that was Vichy France before the Allied landings in North Africa in November of 1942. 

9. The Great Escape (1963): James Clavell and W.R. Burnett fictionalized Paul Brickhill's non-fiction book about a daring escape by Allied POWs from a high-security Stalag for producer-director John Sturges' now-classic action-adventure film. Although it starred several American big-name actors of the era (Charles Bronson, James Coburn, James Garner, and Steve McQueen) along with a top-notch British cast, no American officers actually escaped in the real-life attempt. The film's producers, to their credit, acknowledge this with a "card" that states that the characters are all composites and that certain events were condensed, but that the details of the escape were accurate. 

10. Band of Brothers (2001): Technically not a theatrical film but an HBO miniseries, this 10-part adaptation of Stephen E. Ambrose's non-fiction account of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division is among the best "based on actual events" projects to hit video shelves. Yes, if you've read the book you'll see certain events were moved around, but this is an excellent look at small-unit warfare during the Allied campaign in Northwest Europe and a fine character study of America's citizen soldiers in World War II. 
Photo Credit: George Washington University

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode review: The Bonding

The Bonding
Stardate 43198.7 (Earth Calendar Date 2366)
Episode Production Number: 153
Episode Number (Aired): 52
Original Airdate: October 23, 1989
Written by: Ronald D. Moore
Directed by: Winrich Kolbe

The Episode: On Stardate 43198.7, the Galaxy-class USS Enterprise (registry number NCC-1701-D) is in standard orbit over an uncharted and seemingly uninhabited Class-M planet. An away team led by Security chief Lt. (j.g) Worf (Michael Dorn) is exploring the surface.

After the away team makes its initial survey, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) learns that the planet was once inhabited by a culture known as the Koinonians. The Koinonian culture had apparently wiped itself out in a war, leaving only archaeological relics behind.

Before the away team beams back up to the Enterprise, Lt. Marla Aster (Susan Powell), an archaeologist, is killed when one of the leftover bombs from the Koinonian war explodes.

"Away team is aboard, captain. One dead on arrival."
Beverly Crusher, announcing the death of Marla Aster

Worf and Picard, Lt. Aster’s superiors, are troubled by her tragic death. Not only was Lt. Aster a valued member of the crew, but her death leaves her 12-year-old son Jeremy, (Gabriel Damon) orphaned. Jeremy’s father had died as a result of a Rushton infection when Jeremy was only seven.

Worf, who had lost his Klingon parents as a child when the Romulans attacked the Khitomer outpost, believes he should be the one to tell Jeremy his mother is dead. Picard, however, says that it is his responsibility as Captain of the Enterprise to give the boy the unhappy news.  

"I've always believed that having children on a starship is a very... questionable policy. Serving on a starship means... accepting certain risks, certain dangers... Did Jeremy Aster make that choice?"
"Death and loss are an integral part of life everywhere – leaving him on Earth would not have protected him!"
"No... but the Earth isn't likely to be ordered to the Neutral Zone, or to repel a Romulan attack! It was my command which sent his mother to her death - she understood her mission and my duty... Will he?"

- Picard and Troi  
Picard and ship’s Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) go to the Enterprise’s classroom area and, after taking the boy to the Asters’ quarters, tell Jeremy his mother is dead.

Jeremy takes the news bravely, but he says, “I’m all alone now.” Picard reassures Jeremy that this isn’t so.

"Jeremy, on the starship Enterprise, no one is alone... No one."

Meanwhile, Worf, First Officer William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), and Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) are each examining their feelings about Marla’s death. Worf and Wesley can relate to Jeremy’s situation because they both lost parents when they were younger; Wesley’s father, Jack, like Lt. Aster, was a Starfleet officer who was killed on an away mission. Wesley understands what Jeremy is about to go through, and the death of Marla Aster is a reminder of his own loss.
Worf, as the leader of the away team, still feels responsible for Lt. Aster’s death. He feels a need to protect Jeremy and decides to make him a member of his family through a Klingon ritual, the R’uustai.

Riker, who had had a brief relationship with Marla, admits to Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) that he didn’t know her well but mourned her loss.

"How well did you know Lt. Aster?"
"We spent some time together. Not very well. How well did you know her?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Well, you just asked me."
"But why do you ask the question? Since her death, I have been asked several times to define how well I knew Lt. Aster. And I heard you ask Wesley on the bridge how well he knew Jeremy. Does the question of familiarity have some bearing on death?"
"Do you remember how we all felt when Tasha died?"
"I do not sense the same feelings of absence I associate with Lt. Yar. Although, I cannot say precisely why."
"Just human nature, Data."
"Human nature, sir?"
"We feel a loss more instensely when it's a friend."
"But should not the feelings run just as deep, regardless of who has died?"
"Maybe they should, Data. Maybe if we felt any loss as keenly as we felt the death of one close to us, Human history would be a lot less bloody."
Data and Riker

But as Jeremy and the Enterprise crew try to cope with Lt. Aster’s death, the boy is stunned when a familiar presence enters the Asters’ cabin – his mother has somehow returned from the planet….alive.

My Take:
The Bonding is the fifth episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s third season, which is when the series found its footing under the aegis of a new co-executive producer, Michael Piller. Piller, a veteran writer and television producer, began making subtle but significant tweaks to the storytelling format, such as allowing writers to begin telling continuing story arcs. Piller also began to liberate the show of its tendency to use episodes as “lessons taught/lessons learned” in Planet of the Week stories.

This “moral of the story” ethos was a hallmark of Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the series, which was a holdover from Star Trek: The Original Series. In the 1966-69 show, Roddenberry and the writers were able to make social commentary about the Vietnam War, sex, racial and gender equality by blending it with stories in a sci-fi setting.

This may have worked well in the Sixties, but Roddenberry’s insistence on keeping thos format in Star Trek: The Next Generation placed too many limits on the writing staff during Seasons One and Two. As a result, the writing department seemed to have a revolving door as staff writers came and went. It wasn’t until Piller’s arrival and Roddenberry’s slow disengagement from day-to-day show-running that Star Trek: The Next Generation found its groove.

Although The Bonding is not one of the series’ all-time great episodes, it marked the beginning of Ronald D. Moore’s career as a TV writer. Moore was a 25-year-old Star Trek fan who was dating a young woman who worked on The Next Generation staff. She agreed to take him on a tour of the set, and Moore, who had written a script for the show, dropped it off at the show’s office in the Paramount lot.

The script caught the attention of co-executive producer Rick Berman and Piller, who decided it was good enough to shoot. Moore was hired as a staff writer, and he eventually became a producer for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as well as the co-writer (with Brannon Braga) of the first two Star Trek: The Next Generation feature films.

In The Bonding, Moore does a good job of  balancing the story of Worf’s attempts to help Jeremy deal with his mother’s death with the secondary storyline dealing with the reappearance of Marla Aster on theEnterprise. Moore was one of the first writer’s to explore Worf’s character and his Klingon heritage, and here he gives plenty of good material for the somewhat underutilized Michael Dorn.

Moore also uses his knowledge of the main characters’ backstories – such as Wesley’s loss of his father when he was only five years old – to good effect. As a result of Moore’s The Bonding, Wil Wheaton is given a chance to shine as an actor and to portray Wesley in a role that’s not the “teen genius that saves the ship” concept  that fans tended to dislike.

Moore also delves into Capt. Picard’s discomfort about commanding a starship with families aboard. In past episodes, the good captain seemed to be merely annoyed by having to deal with children. In The Bonding, Moore gives a voice to Picard’s misgivings about exposing kids and other civilians to the dangers of an extended deep space mission.

All of the series’ main cast members have at least one good scene, which requires much thought on the part of a writer because there are at least seven characters to create lines for.

The ensemble cast, led by Patrick Stewart, turns in solid performances in The Bonding. Stewart shows a fatherly side to Capt. Picard that had only been seen in a few Wesley-themed episodes, and Dorn, Frakes, Le Var Burton (Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge), Gates McFadden, and the rest shine under the direction of Winrich Kolbe.

The episode’s  main guest actors, Susan Powell and Gabriel Damon, interact well with the series regulars, and semi-regular cast member Colm Meaney returns for a few scenes as Chief O’Brien.

Though this wasn’t the episode that gave Moore the nickname “The Klingon Guy,” he would go on to write Sins of the Father and all of the series’ scripts centered upon the warrior race.  

All in all, this episode is worth a watch, especially for Worf/Klingon fans.
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures via

Thursday, May 22, 2014

An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943 (Book One of The Liberation Trilogy) - Book review
For as long as I can remember, I've been interested in almost every aspect of the Second World War, partly because movies such as The Sands of Iwo Jima made the war seem like an exciting adventure with "good guys" and "bad guys,' but more importantly because as I grew older I realized that even though wars aren't something to be longed for, the conflict between the Allies and the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis was one of the few justified clashes of arms of modern history, even if some of its causes were the result of bad decisions made by the victors of World War I.

As I've grown older, I've noticed that non-fiction books about World War II have evolved from the almost propaganda-like the Anglo-American Allies fought a brilliant campaign of liberation from 1942 to 1945 with an unprecedented spirit of cooperation and strategic savvy to the more realistic view of while the western alliance was one of the most successful coalitions in history, the wartime picture of "cordial coordination" belies deep divisions between the American and British, not only at the strategic level but also on a personal one.

In An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, former Washington Post staff writer and senior editor Rick Atkinson explores how Anglo-American arguments over how to best defeat Adolf Hitler's Third Reich resulted in a compromise: the Americans would defer on insisting on an early cross-Channel attack into France in 1942 or 1943 and use U.S. forces in North Africa instead, while the British - reluctantly, agreed to commit to an invasion of Europe later on. The result: Operation TORCH, the first Anglo-American landings on hostile shores, designed to bring Vichy France into the Allied camp and squeeze German and Italian forces in a great pincers movement between Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's seaborne invaders on the Morocco-Algeria coast and Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery's British Eighth Army advancing across Libya after his decisive victory over Erwin Rommel at El Alamein.

Just as he did in Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, Atkinson delves into every aspect of the North African campaign, ranging from the lofty heights of Eisenhower's strategic level to the bloody, rock-and-sand, fire-and-maneuver, duck-and-cover existence of the GIs and Tommies who endured the six-month campaign to drive the Germans and Italians from the shores of North Africa.

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning first installment of The Liberation Trilogy, we see just how much the U.S. Army and its commanders had to grow between the daring landings on the beaches of French Morocco and Algeria and the climactic D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.

For instance, readers who are more familiar with Ike as the cool, decisive Supreme Allied Commander in Northwest Europe will be surprised by how unprepared he was for the political aspects of waging a coalition campaign. It's in North Africa where he is first frustrated by the Byzantine squabbles between Charles De Gaulle and his erstwhile opponents of the Vichy French regime, and it is during the march to Axis-occupied Tunisia that the sometimes bitter rivalry between British and American generals comes to the fore.

It's also in this campaign that American troops have to undergo their baptism by fire at the hands of "the Desert Fox," Field Marshal Rommel. Although physically ill and exhausted after a 1,000 mile retreat across the Sahara, Rommel nevertheless gives the green infantrymen and tankers of the U.S. II Corps a bloody nose at the infamous Battle of Kasserine Pass in February 1943.

To be sure, Kasserine only gave the Axis a brief respite, and the GIs began to fight like true soldiers in the months that followed, in part because leaders like George Patton and Omar Bradley took the reins of command, but mostly because "they had learned to hate" the Germans.

Although this book is not light and breezy reading - no book about war ever is - it is well-written in a very descriptive and reader-friendly style. Atkinson uses his reporter's skills to provide concrete details - such as how many people died each minute during World War II and part of the lyrics to Dirty Gertie From Bizerte - weaving a literary tapestry that includes political intrigue, high-level strategy, vivid personality profiles that reveal the virtues and flaws of American and British commanders, plus humorous and not-so-humorous anecdotes depicting America's army as it transformed itself from an inexperienced and sometimes inefficient fighting force into the battle-hardened backbone of the force that liberated Western Europe from Nazi domination.

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy 1943-1944 (Book Two of the Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson) - Book review

Pros:Strong narrative, a fine tribute to a theater overshadowed by the Normandy invasion

Cons:A bit mawkish at times

The Bottom Line:The second entry of The Liberation Trilogy has its literary flaws at times, but it really gives readers a good look at the war in Sicily and Italy.

When most people who aren't into military history much or have learned just the basics about World War II in high school history classes think about the war, more likely than not they'll recall the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the D-Day landings on northern France, or the Battle of the Bulge.

If they are serious war movie buffs, they might even mention the Battle of the Atlantic (via such films as The Enemy Below, Das Boot, or U-571), the Battle of Britain, or the strategic bombing offensive against Germany.

If the air war over Gernany, the Battle of the Atlantic and the campaign to liberate Northwest Europe have overshadowed the long, bloody, and often frustrating campaign in Italy, it's probably because it morphed from being a crucial theater of operations to a somewhat orphaned sideshow long before it ended in the spring of 1945.

In The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Rick Atkinson explores the first 10 months of the Western Allies' struggle to extricate Italy from the Axis camp and perhaps tie down German units that could either be used by Adolf Hitler on the Eastern Front or to oppose the cross-Channel attack on northern France, which was tentatively scheduled for May of 1944.

Like the North African campaign of November 1942-May 1943 (and chronicled by Atkinson in An Army at Dawn), the invasions of Sicily (Operation HUSKY), the "toe of Italy" (BAYTOWN), and Salerno (AVALANCHE) were prompted by a need to close a rift between American planners who wanted to invade France as soon as possible and their British counterparts, who preferred their traditional naval-based "peripheral strategy" to divert German forces to the outer rim of Festung Europa and avoid the mass slaughter they remembered from World War I.

The chief proponent of an Anglo-American campaign in the Mediterranean was, of course, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, whose charm campaign to sway President Franklin D. Rooosevelt and hands-on management of the British war effort is brilliantly described by Atkinson. It was Churchill who, when looking at a map of Nazi-controlled Europe, described Italy and Southern France as "the soft underbelly of the Axis."

But if Churchill comes across as the architect of the long, tedious, and bloody struggle up the boot of Italy, FDR emerges as the "decision-maker" who, while understanding the concerns of such luminaries as Gen. George C. Marshall and Adm. Ernest J. King (who, before FDR made his final choice to prosecute the Mediterranean campaign, said he wanted to shift the Navy's full effort to the Pacific), was loath to keeping American forces in the European Theater idle for a year or so during the buildup to Operation OVERLORD, the invasion of France.

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 is the second part of Atkinson's The Liberation Trilogy, which will culminate in a few years with a third volume about the campaigns in Northwest Europe. Many of the historical figures introduced in 2002's An Army at Dawn reappear in this book, ranging from the well-known (Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, Montgomery) to the somewhat more obscure commanders (Clark, Leese, and Alexander), and quite a few will be featured in Book Three because they transfer to Britain from the Med in mid-campaign to take part in OVERLORD.

As in all the books I've read by Atkinson, there is a fine balance of the Big Picture of the war and the small, telling personal detail. Like he does in Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War and An Army at Dawn, the author gives the reader a mix of personality profiles of not only the well-known commanders on both sides but also of field-grade officers such as Lt. Col. John J. Toffey, Jr., a product of a traditional Army family who had led his battalion from North Africa almost all the way to Rome, and of the well-known correspondent Ernie Pyle, who drank way too much and doubted his writing talent even while producing perhaps the best known column about the war in Italy. (It was Pyle who wryly noted that the "soft underbelly" had turned out to be a "tough old gut.")

Atkinson also examines the shortcomings, blunders, and strategic/tactical incompetence that hampered the Allied efforts in Italy. There's an account, for instance, of a German air raid on Bari harbor that took place on December 2, 1943. Not only was it, in Atkinson's words, "the costliest sneak attack since Pearl Harbor," but it saw one of the war's biggest cover-ups when bombs hit a cargo ship which carried tons of mustard gas shells. The Allies had shipped them to Italy - in secret - just in case the Germans used chemical weapons on the peninsula, but the enemy never did, so in order to keep a lid on the resulting casualties, the incident was withheld from the press.

In addition, there are very detailed glimpses at the battles of Salerno, the Rapido and Volturno river crossings, the fight for San Pietro Infine, the even more controversial fiascos of Anzio and Monte Cassino, and, finally, the much-debated "race for Rome," which remains very controversial among historians and armchair generals even in the first decade of the 21st Century.

While not perfect (Atkinson sometimes gets mawkish and a bit too poetic, especially when he follows the story arc of a few lower-ranked officers), The Day of Battle is still one of the best in-depth looks at the war in Sicily and Italy that I've read, and he is at his best when he takes readers into such settings as the refit Queen Mary upon her arrival in New York harbor, carrying not only several thousand German POWs bound for the American West, but also Churchill and his retinue of commanders for a conference in Washington. When he does this, Atkinson gives us a "fly on the wall" perspective, whether it's in a conference room full of top brass trying to sway their civilian leaders to choose a particular strategy or in a confined beachhead surrounded by enemy forces, with GIs and Tommies fighting and dying in a series of battles against a tough and determined German army.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Signal Corps

The Guns at Last Light - Book Three of The Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson (book review)

In 2002, Rick Atkinson, a former staff writer and senior editor at the Washington Post, published the best-selling An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy. Critically acclaimed as “the best World War II battle narrative since Cornelius Ryan’s classics, The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far,”* An Army at Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize in history the following year. In An Army at Dawn, the author covers the trials and tribulations of the inexperienced U.S. Army and its allies in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia as they sought to eject German and Italian forces from North Africa. 

Five years later, Atkinson continued the saga of the Anglo-American campaigns against Nazi Germany inThe Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944.  Again, Atkinson’s account of the long and almost forgotten Mediterranean ventures against what Winston Churchill called “the soft underbelly of the Axis” earned critical and commercial success. The New York Times’ reviewer hailed The Day of Battle as "a triumph of narrative history, elegantly written, thick with unforgettable description and rooted in the sights and sounds of battle." 

In both books, Atkinson explores every aspect of the Western Allies’ military and political campaigns to defeat Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. The campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy are revealed to have been a result of compromises and disagreement between the American and British high commands rather than, as the mythology of the time had it, a unified grand plan devised in unanimous accord. 

Now, at long last, Atkinson raises the curtain on the final act of World War II in Europe with The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945. 
The Guns at Last Light begins where The Day of Battle left off. As Allied forces continue their slow and painful advance up the Italian peninsula, most of the Anglo-American armies are gathering in Great Britain for the D-Day invasion of France. Many of the generals who commanded forces in the Mediterranean (Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, and Montgomery) have been transferred to London to plan and carry out Operation OVERLORD, the cross-Channel assault to open the long-awaited Second Front that Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin has been demanding since 1942. 

As Atkinson reminds us, Stalin has grown suspicious of Allied intentions in regard to fighting Hitler’s legions. For nearly three years, the Soviet Union has borne the brunt of the war against the Third Reich. Most of Germany’s army is fighting on the Eastern Front, and the Anglo-American efforts in the Mediterranean have only drawn off a handful of Nazi divisions. From his perspective, Stalin believes that the staunchly anticommunist Churchill has convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to carry out a peripheral (and minimal) effort in a non-critical theater while the Red Army is bled dry by German forces. 

The Americans, too, are eager to mount Operation OVERLORD, especially since they, too, believe Britain’s Mediterranean strategy is intended solely to protect her imperial interests in the Middle East and India. Since 1942, U.S. generals have clamored for a cross-Channel assault against German forces in Western Europe. For two years, Churchill and the British high command  have resisted such a venture, pointing out the disparities between Allied military prowess and that of the enemy. 

But by June 1944, the massive buildup of American, British and other Allied forces has tilted the scales of military power in the West to favor the U.S. strategic point of view. With millions of American soldiers, airmen, and sailors stationed in the British Isles under the command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a reluctant Churchill finally admits that he’s “hardening toward this enterprise.”    

The Guns at Last Light begins, naturally, with the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 and covers the last 11 months of World War II in Western Europe. In its 896 pages, Atkinson covers the famous – and infamous – battles which marked the campaign to liberate Europe from Hitler’s tyrannical rule: Normandy, the race to the Rhine, Operation MARKET-GARDEN, the Huertgen Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge. 

As in the other volumes of the Liberation Trilogy, Atkinson’s prose paints a dramatic portrait of war in all its aspects. The author not only covers the Big Picture of politics and grand strategy; he also delves into poignant details about day-to-day life in wartime Europe: 

Privation lay on the land like another odor. British men could buy a new shirt every twenty months. Housewives twisted pipe cleaners into hair clips. Iron railings and grillwork had long been scrapped for the war effort; even cemeteries stood unfenced. Few shoppers could find a fountain pen or a wedding ring, or bedsheets, vegetable peelers, shoelaces. Posters discouraged profligacy with depictions of the “Squander Bug,” a cartoon rodent with swastika pockmarks. Classified advertisements included pleas in the Times of London for “unwanted artificial teeth” and cash donations to help wounded Russian war horses. An ad for Chez-Vous household services promised “bombed upholstery and carpets cleaned.” 
Other government placards advised, “Food is a munition. Don’t waste it.” Rationing had begun in June 1940 and would not end completely until 1954. The monthly cheese allowance now stood at two ounces per citizen. Many children had never seen a lemon; vitamin C came from “turnip water.” The Ministry of Food promoted “austerity bread,” with a whisper of sawdust, and “victory coffee,” brewed from acorns. “Woolton pie,” a concoction of carrots, potatoes, onions, and flour, was said to lie “like cement upon the chest.” For those with strong palates, no ration limits applied to sheep’s head, or to eels caught in local reservoirs, or to roast cormorant, a stringy substitute for poultry. 

Atkinson is adept at sketching vivid personality profiles of the commanders and the men they led to battle. Gen. Lucian Truscott, a corps commander in Operation DRAGOON, was a former schoolteacher and a voracious bibliophile “who renounced strong drink, tobacco, and profanity, he eventually was promoted to principal. Yet not until he joined the Army and won a cavalry officer’s commission in 1917, at age twenty-two, did he find his true calling. Slowly ascending through the ranks between the wars, Truscott won admirers for both his professional competence and his skills as a polo player. Army life also put rough edges on the former teacher, who soon drank, smoked, and swore profusely.” 

The Guns at Last Light is not only painstakingly researched and informative, it’s also a highly enjoyable read. Atkinson knows how to organize a strong narrative and not bog it down with dry facts and monotonous generalities. His style is lively, full of wry irony and even a poetic lyricism that rivals the works of Stephen E. Ambrose, Antony Beevor, and Max Hastings. The scale of his narrative is monumental, yet Atkinson never loses sight of the war-weary ordinary soldiers or the terrified civilians caught in World War II’s tragic maelstrom. 

The Wall Street Journal

The Departed (2006) - movie review

The Departed, Martin Scorsese's 2006 Academy Award-winning remake of Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs, marks the New York City native's return to the gritty crime drama genre in which he made his mark back in the 1970s.

Instead of turning his cinematic eye on the mean streets of the Big Apple, Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) explores the dark underside of Boston, Massachussets in a tale about corruption, the rivalry between the Irish and Italian mobs, and internal strife within Boston's law enforcement officers.

Written by  William Monahan (Body of Lies, Kingdom of Heaven) and based on the original Infernal Affairs script by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, The Departed features Jack Nicholson as an aging but wily mobster named Frank Costello. Costello (loosely based on the notorious Whitey Bulger) is a menacing yet seductive gangster who early in the film recruits 12-year-old Colin Sullivan (Conor Donovan) into his circle of criminals. (Costello is shaking down a grocery store owner and hitting on the poor guy's daughter as Colin watches in fascination.)

Years later, a now grown-up Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) joins the Massachusetts State Police. On the outside, he projects a squeaky-clean exterior of the ideal state trooper as he aces all his exams and is assigned to the Special Investigations Unit, the unit assigned to investigate organized crime.

In reality, Sullivan is Costello's trusted mole inside the SIU. This allows the mobster to stay one step ahead of SIU heads Capt. Queegan (Martin Sheen) and Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and their investigations into his criminal enterprises.

But Queegan and Dignam know that SIU has been compromised and recruit Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a police academy recruit with family connections to Boston mobs. They convince Costigan to play the part of a cop gone bad, go to prison, and ingratiate himself with Costello's outfit.

Costigan agrees, and after establishing his bona fides as a former police officer with a criminal record, insinuates himself into Costello's crew of mobsters.  Hre participates in various criminal activities, all the while keeping his eyes and ears open to identify Costello's mole in the SIU.

My Take: Although I have seen several of the Scorsese-DiCaprio films in theaters (The Aviator, Shutter Island), The Departed is the only one that I have added to my video library. Cops-versus-mobsters is not a genre that I explore too often, but I heard enough raves about The Departed to get my interest piqued.

For me, the big draw is the stellar cast. In addition to Nicholson, DiCaprio, Damon, Sheen, and Wahlberg,The Departed features fine performances by Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone, and Vera Farmiga. Whether they're playing cops, gangsters, or their hangers-on/lovers, Scorsese's actors are windows to the good and bad sides of human nature.

The Departed is also one hell of a suspense thriller. The two main antagonists, Costigan and Sullivan, are under a great deal of internal pressure while playing their deceitful game. Costigan, the kid who wants to do good, must commit crimes in order to gain Costello's trust.

Sullivan, too, has to play a mirror role to Costigan. To be an effective mole for Costello, Colin has to do his job as a law enforcement agent in order to get promoted and access into SIU's investigations.

Even Colin's lover, police psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Farmiga) has secrets of her own once she meets Billy Costigan, who has to see her as part of his probation. Billy and Madolyn begin a clandestine sexual relationship, thus creating another layer of deceit.

The Departed has scenes of graphic violence and what the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board labels "pervasive language." I didn't keep a count of how many times the F-bomb and its derivatives were used in The Departed, but in the trivia entry for the movie, screenwriter Monahan uses "f--k" and related terms 237 times.

( notes that this is the Best Picture winner with the most f-bombs in Hollywood history. I believe that, because Jack Nicholson utters a variant in the first few minutes of The Departed's opening voiceover.)

This, obviously, is not a film for kids or people who are offended by profanity, violence, sexual content, or drug use.

However, if you have a tolerance for films with adult themes and glimpses into the dark side of human nature, watch this engrossiing drama by one of Hollywood's great directors. 

Trekking in HD: Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season Three (review

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season Three

But it was in the third season that (Star Trek: The Next Generation) began to come into its own, at least in part due to the arrival of Michael Piller as head of the writing staff. Piller had both written and produced for the TV series “Simon & Simon”…. Says Piller, “I can’t claim full credit (for the success); we had a lot of good writers here. I will claim credit for my contribution, which is that I just have an idea for what I think makes a good dramatic story….”  - J.M. Dillard, Star Trek – Where No One Has Gone Before: A History in Pictures

The third season of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST-TNG) was yet another period of transition for the series, albeit one with good portents rather than bad ones. Maurice Hurley, one of the show’s co-executive producers, left the staff, as did several other writers, including Michael Wagner.

 Meanwhile, Roddenberry, the series’ creator, took less of an active role in running ST-TNG due to his deteriorating health. To fill the creative void, Roddenberry hired Michael Piller, an experienced writer-producer who had worked on Cagney and Lacey and Simon & Simon.  Piller was named as co-executive producer (along with Roddenberry’s protégé, Rick Berman) after The Bonding, the third season’s fifth episode, aired.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season Three: Arrivals, Departures, and Sea Changes

Piller, who was in charge of the writing staff, thought that ST-TNG needed to focus less on Big Ideas and more on the show’s “family” of characters. He believed that the first two seasons’ episodes were hamstrung by the Roddenberry-Berman team’s emphasis on “lesson stories” where (a) the Enterprise crew made contact with a new civilization and learned something along the way, or (b) the Enterprise crew learned something from interactions with aliens or super-beings such as Q.

Piller not only moved away from this rigid storytelling philosophy, but he also took an unprecedented step of implementing an  “open door” policy  and accepting stories and “spec scripts” from writers outside the staff. Many young writers, including Ron D. Moore and Rene Echeverria, were hired to work on the series after turning in spec scripts which made it past the selection process.

The third season was also one of transition for the cast. Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher), was brought back in part because fans missed the “spark” between her character and Patrick Stewart’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. Ironically, actor Wil Wheaton, who played Crusher’s son Wesley, asked to be let go at the end of Season Three to pursue a movie career.  Wheaton would make several guest appearances in later seasons, as well as a brief cameo in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. (In the behind-the-scenes documentaryResistance is Futile: Assimilating Star Trek: The Next GenerationWheaton explains that he felt frustrated because the producers and writers couldn’t figure out what to do with Wesley as a character.)

The new emphasis on the Enterprise-D “family” of characters not only freed the writers from the restrictive “alien of the week/situation of the week” paradigm, but it also allowed them to introduce overt continuity to the Star Trek TV franchise.

At first, both Roddenberry and Berman were dead-set against anything that smacked of continuing storylines. They believed that it would hurt the show’s prospects as a re-run “property” once its original run ended. Continuity was conspicuously absent from Star Trek: The Original Series and TV station programmers aired them in any order they liked. Roddenberry (and to some degree, Berman) wanted to stick to this formula for business reasons.

Piller and the writers saw it differently. They understood that in the old days of television the formula for scripts was to give each episode a well-defined beginning, middle, and end but not to change the regular characters’ lives in a major way. This made audiences feel comfortable with their favorite shows; the characters and situations would be dependably familiar, and if viewers missed an episode or two it wouldn’t be a big issue.

But by ST-TNG’s third season, it became clear to the writers, especially the newer staff members, that if the show was to break out on its own, its characters had to grow and evolve. If the Enterprise-D and her crew was locked into a closed-story, no-continuity paradigm, then ST-TNG would stagnate and its ratings would drop like a stone.

Although the series never adopted episode-to-episode continuity a la 24, the writers started creating story arcs in which events from one episode would have repercussions later in the same season or even farther in the future. Sins of the Father, written by Ronald D. Moore, is the “set up” for Season Four’s Reunion andRedemption – Part I.

Season Three would also begin the Star Trek franchise’s tradition of the season finale “cliffhanger.” Michael Piller’s The Best of Both Worlds – Part I (itself a continuation of Season Two’s Q Who?) told the chilling story of Capt. Picard’s abduction by the Borg but left the resolution hanging until the Season Four premiere.

The Blu-ray Set:  
CBS Blu-ray, which produces Star Trek  HD home media for Paramount after CBS  acquired the franchise’s copyright several years ago, released Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season Three on April 25, 2013. The six Blu-ray discs are ensconced in a slim Blu-ray jewel box package. Its cover art (which is duplicated in the cardboard slipcover) features ST-TNG’s Starfleet insignia against a lemon-green backdrop. Within the Starfleet delta are portraits of Capt. Picard, Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge and Dr. Crusher. The background art depicts the Enterprise-D orbiting a Class-M planet, with distant stars lying further away.

My Take: 
I’ve never owned previous Paramount’s VHS or DVD issues of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so I can’t offer a comparison between the Blu-ray edition and its forebears. According to the package blurb and some of the behind-the-scenes materials in the set: 

Season Three of Star Trek: The Next Generation took televised science fiction storytelling to new heights. Now, on high definition Blu-ray, the seminal season of this beloved series is more spectacular and compelling to watch than ever. Experience such thought-provoking episodes as “The Survivors,”  “Sins of the Father,” “The Offspring” and one of the great cliffhangers in television history: Part One of “The Best of Both Worlds”…like never before, in glorious 1080p with 7.1 sound.

 In contrast to the remastered versions of Star Trek: The Original Series, the wizards at CBS Video/Blu-ray did not replace the 1989-1990 special effects with 21st Century updates. They did, however, digitally clean up the images directly from the original film used during the show’s production. The result: a vast improvement in video and audio quality that doesn’t compromise the vision of the original directors and effects supervisors.

As in the Season Two set, Star Trek: The Next Generation features a ship’s cargo bay’s worth of extras.

There are two behind-the-scenes documentaries and various featurettes. Some of them are carryovers from previous DVD collections of the series, while others are exclusive to this 2013 release.  (The Mission Logs for Year Three in each of the six Blu-ray discs are from the previous DVD editions.)

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Inside the Writer’s Room, in which Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane interviews several of ST-TNG’s writers. Participants include Ron Moore, Brannon Braga, Rene Echeverria, and Naren Shankar. The role played by the late Michael Piller in improving the series is one of the topics discussed here.

There’s also a longer documentary about Season Three, its production, and its impact on the series and the rest of the Star Trek franchise. Resistance is Futile – Assimilating Star Trek: The Next Generation is divided thusly:

Part One: Biological Distinctiveness
Part Two: Technological Distinctiveness
Part Three: The Collective

There are also two posthumous tributes to the late David Rappaport and Michael Piller.  

Note on Languages (Subtitles and Audio)

Though the product listing on Amazon only lists “English” in the Language category, Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season Three features various languages in both audio and subtitle options. English is the default selection on the preliminary menu, but viewers may also choose Danish, French, Japanese, Castillian Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, and Swedish. (Some of these options apply to audio and subtitles, though some apply only to subtitles.)

Season Three Episode List

Disc One:

The Ensigns of Command
The Survivors
Who Watches the Watchers
The Bonding

Special Features:

Episode Promos
Archival Mission Log: Mission Overview Year Three

Disc Two:

Booby Trap
The Enemy
The Price
The Vengeance Factor
The Defector

Special Features

Episode Promos
Archival Mission Log: Selected Crew Analysis Year Three

Disc Three:

The Hunted
The High Ground
Deja Q
A Matter of Perspective
Yesterday’s Enterprise

Special Features

Episode Promos
Archival Mission Log:  Departmental Briefing Year Three: Memorable Missions

Disc Four:

The Offspring
Sins of the Father
Captain’s Holiday

Special Features:

Episode Promos
Archival Mission Log: Departmental Briefing Year Three: Production

Disc Five:

Tin Man
Hollow Pursuits
The Most Toys
Menage a Troi

Special Features:

Episode Promos
In Memoriam David Rappaport
Gag Reel (HD)

Disc Six:

The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1

Special Features:

Episode Promos

Resistance is Futile – Assimilating Star Trek: The Next Generation

Part One: Biological Distinctiveness
Part Two: Technological Distinctiveness
Part Three: The Collective

A Tribute to Michael Piller (HD)

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12

Man of Steel (2013) movie review

Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder’s ambitious 2013 reboot of Warner Bros. Superman film franchise, is an earnest but sometimes dour and plodding retelling of the DC Comics superhero’s origin story.

Starring British actor Henry Cavill (Stardust) in the dual role of Kal-El/Clark Kent and co-starring Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, and Michael Shannon, Man of Steel reinvents Superman’s backstory from the ground up. In essence, it tells Superman’s Moses/Jesus-inspired saga of how Kryptonian scientist Jor-El (Crowe) sends his newborn son to Earth to save him from his home planet’s destruction.

Because the screenplay by David S. Goyer (based on a story by producer Christopher Nolan) pretends that the Christopher Reeve/Brandon Routh Superman films don’t exist, Man of Steel begins on Krypton. As in the comics and the Richard Donner Superman: The Movie, the planet is doomed. However, in Goyer’s reboot, Krypton’s red sun has nothing to do with the planet’s impending destruction. Instead, it’s the Kryptonians who are responsible; they have been tapping energy from the planet’s core and unwittingly making it unstable.

Jor-El has tried to warn the ruling council and even proposes evacuating the planet’s population to abandoned colonies off-world, but to no avail. Unable to sway his government but desperate to at least save his newborn son, Jor-El steals a codex which contains the genetic information of every Kryptonian and infuses it into the baby’s cells.

But Jor-El is not the only one who seeks to save Krypton’s population from extinction. General Zod (Shannon), his friend and erstwhile protégé, stages a coup d’etat and orders Jor-El to hand over the codex. When the scientist refuses, Zod murders him. However, Zod and his minions are soon captured and sent to the Phantom Zone.

Lor-Em: General Zod, for the crimes of murder and high treason, the council has sentenced you and your fellow insurgents to 300 cycles of somatic reconditioning. Do you have any last words?
General Zod: You won't kill us yourself! You wouldn't dirty your hands but you'll damn us to a black hole for eternity! Jor-El was right! You're a pack of fools, every last one of you!
General Zod: [to Lara] You... you believe your son is safe... I will find him. I will reclaim what you have taken from us! I will find him. I will find him, Lara. I WILL FIND HIM!  

Meanwhile, the tiny spaceship with Kal-El aboard crashes near Smallville, Kansas. The baby is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Costner, Lane), a childless couple in their early 50s. The Kents adopt the boy and name him Clark, raising him as best they can even though he has powers no one on Earth has.

Now, even if you’re not a die-hard Superman fan, you know that Clark eventually discovers his Kryptonian heritage, leaves Kansas for Metropolis, becomes a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet, and meets Perry White (Laurence Fishbourne) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams).  He also assumes the role of Superman, the caped demi-god with heat and X-ray vision, super-strength, and the ability to fly.

Superman: If Krypton lives again, what happens to Earth?
General Zod: A foundation has to be built on something. Even your father recognized that.
[Superman sees he is surrounded by human bones]
Superman: No! NOOO!

Now the stage is set for an inventive, if perhaps brooding, reimagining of the Kal-El vs. Zod conflict which was also covered in the first two Richard Donner Superman movies. Zod and his followers have been freed from the Phantom Zone and made their way to Earth. Their mission: convince Kal-El to surrender the codex and use the genetic information in it to restore Krypton – using Earth as its foundation!

My Take

Just as Christopher Nolan (who is one of the movie’s producers and wrote the story) reimagined the Batman myth in his Dark Knight trilogy, he, screenwriter David S. Goyer, and director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) try not to continue the Superman storyline from the existing five Warner Bros. feature films.

Inspired by the fact that DC Comics has rebooted the Superman origin story several times since 1938, Man of Steel’s creative team conceived a story steeped in 75 years’ worth of lore and tries to make it relevant to 21st Century audiences.

For the most part, they succeed. Man of Steel spends more time on Krypton and showing us its culture and part of its history than the three relevant Reeve-Routh Superman films did.

Snyder and the production team came up with a fresh vision of Krypton that almost erases the memories of Richard Donner’s doomed ice ball of a planet from Superman. The Krypton of Man of Steel looks and feels more alive; it is eerily reminiscent of Star Trek’s Vulcan or one of the more exotic planets from the Star Wars prequels.

Another brave choice that makes Man of Steel watchable is the casting of Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Kal-El’s adoptive parents. Whereas in the comics and the first Superman movies the Kents are in their early 60s or so, Jonathan and Martha are, at most, in their early 50s.  They’re still energetic (and good-looking) enough to be believable as adoptive parents, yet they’re wise and experienced enough to deal with the challenges of raising Kal-El.

Goyer and Nolan also deserve praise for not making General Zod a younger and fitter version of Terence Stamp’s incarnation of  Zod from the first two Superman films.  Whereas Stamp plays Zod as a ruthless and vengeful overlord, Michael Shannon interprets the role differently. 

Like Jor-El, General Zod seeks to save his race, even if he has to make some hard and cruel choices. He is a warrior who believes that what he is doing is right, even when he is planning a Nazi-like purification of his own race or planning to  sacrifice Earth’s entire population in order to restore Krypton on its “new matrix.”

Amy Adams shines as a 21st Century Lois Lane. Her character arc benefits the most from the reboot process. In Man of Steel Lois is freed, as it were, from the earlier movies’ treatment of her as a dogged but trouble-prone journalist who has to be rescued all the time by Superman. Adams, who tried out for the role for the canceled Superman Flyby and Superman Returns, is still the “love interest” for Superman, but in Man of Steel she is less of “girl as hero’s reward” and more of an equal partner for the last son of Krypton.

British actor Henry Cavill is a watchable Kal-El/Clark Kent, even though we see him more as Superman than as his “mild-mannered reporter” alter ego. He looks like what we’d expect Superman to look like if he was a real person, and Cavill has the acting chops to give the Man of Steel gravitas and an all-too-human vulnerability. He’s good in the action sequences and more interesting to watch than Brandon Routh.

The film, like Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is an all-new story with no ties to what has come before. Not only does this mean that viewers get a new spin on the Superman origin story and its characters, but that none of John Williams’ familiar music is heard in the score.

Hans Zimmer’s score is, by necessity, unique to Man of Steel and has its soaring and elegaic moments, to be sure. Its main theme reflects the heroic and altruistic nature of the main character, even though it’s not as memorable as the familiar “March from Superman” composed for the 1978 film. However, some viewers may not like Zimmer’s emphasis on percussion instruments and a brass effect known as the “horn of doom.” (For the record, I prefer the older John Williams score for the 1978 film and its themes as used in the various sequels, but recognize the need to break away from them for a new narrative.)

My main issue with Man of Steel is that by trying to make the Superman story more “life-like” and contemporary, Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder have made the story darker and more serious in tone. Sure, this is a better film than Richard Lester’s Superman III and Sidney J. Furie’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.But, like the Nolan Batman trilogy, the need for realism and relativity sucks some of the joy out of the iconic character.

Yes, Superman is still the All-American superhero who fights for truth, justice, and all that good stuff, and Henry Cavill does a credible job in the role. Still, the warmth and compassion exhibited by Cavill’s Superman is lackluster when compared to the Christopher Reeve incarnation of the character.

Recommend this product? Yes

Movie Mood: Action Movie
Viewing Method: Other
Film Completeness: Looked complete to me.
Worst Part of this Film: Music