Two of my reviews were recently posted on GreenCine.com:
Max Manus: Man of War is a WWII epic based on a true story of Norwegian resistance fighter Max Manus. With a DVD release title and cover art that makes it sound like a comic book straight to video, the film from Bandidas directorsEspen Sandberg and Joachim Roennin looks good and is exciting enough to hold attention, especially for war history buffs, but the script doesn't break any especially new ground.
Max Manus opens with an obligatory and probably unnecessary "how we got here" WWII background montage before starting in a 1940 Finland snow-covered battlefield then flashing back a few months earlier to when Germany has taken over Finland. Manus, our hero (played by Aksel Hennie), says "I was embarrassed to be from Finland." And thus we get the story of how Manus bravely became part of an unheralded resistance movement in his native country.
While Manus has been propped up to almost mythic status, he and his cohorts -- which the film depicts with what feels like a fair mind -- rarely had large-scale successes. These resistance fighters were rather naive to start, as Manus admits in voiceover: "I didn’t think of consequences back then." They were heroic mainly for continually defying the Nazis, maintaining their underground movement, and managing to evade death (or, at least some of them managed). The film depicts their series of often botched, risky ventures of terrorism. This also points to the issue with doing a fact-based historical piece, in that you are held captive by the structure as it unfolded in real life, which doesn't necessarily serve a cinematic narrative all that well.
In American: The Bill Hicks Story, British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas set out to tell the tale of the influential comedian who was underappreciated in his time and then taken from us too soon. The Texas-raised Hickswas a remarkable comic who dared tell truths in this country in a time (the 1980s and into the 90s) when a lot of Americans lived in a trance and didn't want to hear them told so bluntly--or at all. The film will probably be more of a revelation to the uninitiated than to longtime fans (such as myself), but fans of the cult comic will also find much to appreciate here.
The most frustrating thing about American is its often overdone use of stylistic techniques that distract and detract more than they illuminate. One such technique is animating photographs of Hicks that keeps one's attention but is used to the point where it almost becomes insulting to the audience. In moderation the technique is fine but subtlety is perfectly acceptable in documentary. The doc suffers from rushed editing; in one moment, Bill's brother is giving a heartfelt interview telling the story of when he first found out in a phone call that Hicks had cancer, but then the sound fades out while the camera rolls on him still speaking. The film's lack of critical eye, other than talking about the low point when his drinking had started to ruin his act, also grates a bit.