13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI (2016)

January 17, 2016

13 Hours Greetings again from the darkness. Given that his last “true” story movie was Pearl Harbor (2001), and he is best known for the endless stream of Transformers movies (yes, another one is on the way), it’s understandable how we could be apprehensive (to say the least) about director Michael Bay taking on the Benghazi story. A sigh of relief is in order as the film pays tribute to those who deserve it while still providing Bay the opportunity to blow stuff up, and display his always-annoying tendencies with a camera.

The incredibly courageous soldiers, who comprised the CIA security team (GRS) of contractors that saved many lives, are the heroes of the story and heroes in real life. Bay never loses focus on their bravery and dedication, and avoids the temptation of taking an obvious political stance in telling their story. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from making a weaslley CIA administrator type (played by David Constable) the face of bureaucratic incompetence.

The six man team is played in the movie by John Krasinski (as Jack Silva), James Badge Dale (beefed up from his “Pacific” days as Tyrone “Rone” Woods), Pablo Schreiber (as Kris “Tanto” Paronto), David Denman (as Dave “Boon” Benton), Dominic Fumusa (as John “Tig” Tiegen), and Max Martini (as Mark “Oz” Geist). All six actors are clearly proud to represent these men, and though wise-cracks abound, there is absolutely no Hollywood preening or posturing … these are gritty, well-trained, dedicated warriors.

So much as been written and debated about what happened during the 2012 siege that resulted in the tragic deaths of four Americans, including that of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. But given the reputations of those in the CIA and the State Department, it’s doubtful full disclosure will ever replace the holes of doubt that exist, so studying the action sequences makes sense … though we also get a Joseph Campbell reference. Chuck Hogan adapted Mitchell Zuckoff’s book for the film, and in between the rapid gun fire and missiles, that deafening silence you hear is Washington, D.C.

watch the trailer:

 

 


BEASTS OF NO NATION (2015)

October 16, 2015

beasts of no nation Greetings again from the darkness. Cary Joji Fukunaga has quickly established himself as an expert storyteller with his previous writing and directing of Sin Nombre (2009), Jane Eyre (2011) and the fascinating and conversation-sparking first season of “True Detective” (he did not direct the much-maligned Season Two).  He goes even deeper and darker this time by adapting Uzodinma Iweala’s novel about a child soldier.

When first we meet Agu, he is but an enterprising and fun-loving kid who thrives on mischief such as trying to sell “Imagination TV” – the empty shell of a console TV, complete with Agu and his buddies acting out scenes for those who peer through the picture tube opening. Agu describes himself as “a good boy from a good family”, and we believe him.

Somewhere in Africa is all we know about the location, and soon enough Agu’s village is under siege and he is separated from his mother, and forced to stay behind with the men – including his father and big brother. More terror forces Agu alone into the forest until he is brought into a mostly young group of rebel forces led by the Commandant (Idris Elba). It’s around this time that Agu begins “talking” to God through voice over narration that allows viewers to understand what’s going on inside Agu’s head – often quite contrary to what is happening on the outside as he transforms from mischievous kid to dead-eyed child soldier.  When Agu stops speaking to God, we understand that he believes he no longer deserves to be heard, but his words to the universe (directed to his mother) let us know, this boy has not yet lost his soul.

Though we never understand the war, or even who is fighting whom, this uncertainty is designed to help us better relate to Agu. He may be a tough-minded soldier, but we also never forget that he is mostly a little boy hoping to re-connect with his mother. Idris Elba plays the Commandant as part father-figure, part war lord, and part cult leader. He is a menacing presence one moment and a soothing voice of reason the next. When we (and Agu) learn the full story of his multiple sides, we are both sickened and disheartened. It’s the performances of both Elba and newcomer Abraham Attah (as Agu) that make this such a devastating and fascinating movie to watch, and it’s the filmmaking of Fukunaga that keeps our eyes glued to the screen when we would just as soon turn away.

This is a Netflix original film and they are experimenting with a simultaneous release in theatres and streaming. This approach has not previously been met with open arms by theatre chains when attempted by other distributors. It will be interesting to see if Netflix can make it work.

watch the trailer:

 


GOOD KILL (2015)

May 22, 2015

good kill Greetings again from the darkness. It sounds like a screenwriter’s workshop: write a story centered on a joystick, a computer monitor, a speaker phone and a shipping container. Most would surrender their Pulitzer dream and head back to the day job. Andrew Niccol, on the other hand, is a talented writer/director known for such projects as Gattaca, Lord of War, and The Truman Show. His story is set in 2010 and is “based on actual events” of drone warfare.

It could seem a bit dated to explore a topic that most have known about for years, but Niccol manages to wring out a story that keeps us engaged and more importantly, encourages discussion about the concept of “video game warfare”.

Ethan Hawke plays a fighter pilot who has been reassigned as a drone pilot after serving 6 tours in Afghanistan. Each day he reports to duty on a Las Vegas base and spends 12 hours locked away in a cramped shipping container staring at a video monitor while delicately manipulating a joystick that can kill people 7000 miles away within 10 seconds. These killer drones have transformed warfare, and as far as I know, this is the first film version dedicated to the daily lives of the men and women serving this duty.

Given what we know about fighter pilots, it’s not surprising that Hawke’s character is crumbling emotionally … missing the danger that comes with a real cockpit. His marriage to January Jones is void of any intimacy or communication (partially due to his alcoholism), though surprisingly, Ms. Jones delivers something other than her typical cardboard cutout performance. Watching the suburban lifestyle of these two – grilling, backyard parties, math homework with the kids – brings nothing new to the screen, but tension is palpable as Hawke and his co-drone-pilot Zoe Kravitz are locked away and forced to follow morally-questionable orders from Langley (voiced by the great Peter Coyote). Put yourself on that joystick and imagine what you would do.

The story pushes us to discuss the dehumanization of war, and the idea that the Air Force is now best described as the “Chair Force”. Especially interesting is the official verbiage used by the CIA and military in an effort to avoid “killing” and “innocent bystanders”. Think about the fact that 3 decades have passed since we got caught up in the thrill of Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer as Top Gun pilots, and now some of the most deadly decisions are made based on a visual feed from a done hovering at 10,000 feet.

Mr. Niccol delivers a thought-provoking movie, which alone sets it above many. The drone’s eye view follows not just the movements of the enemy, but also those of Hawke at home and in his car. Hawke’s commanding officer is played by Bruce Greenwood, who delivers the film’s best line: as Hawke is looking at Greenwood’s fighter pilot photos, he says, you are probably thinking “I must have been a pilot before Pontius”. It’s a great line and one that reinforces how warfare has changed … from boots on the ground to recruits based on their video game savvy.  Surgical strikes are the preferred manner of warfare, so watch this and ask yourself … what would you do?

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE WATER DIVINER (2015)

April 25, 2015

water diviner Greetings again from the darkness. The lure of the director’s chair is sometimes too much for A-list actors to avoid. We have watched Mel Gibson, Angelina Jolie and Kevin Costner have success behind the camera, and now we get Russell Crowe with a story tied to his roots in Australia. The film is scheduled to open in conjunction with the 100th Anniversary of ANZAC Day (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), a day of national pride and remembrance.

Mr. Crowe also stars as Connor, an Australian farmer with a gift for finding water sources in the outback – hence the title. Connor and his grieving wife lost all three of their sons in the Battle of Gallipoli, when Britain and Allies invaded Turkey, resulting in the death of more than 100,000. Four years after the battle, Connor is forced to try and fulfill the promise he made his wife … travel to Turkey, find the bodies of their sons, and bring them home for proper burial.

Director Crowe, working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), delivers a film that looks exceptional … both in its widescreen vastness and beauty, as well as its more intimate moments (though the heavy dose of amber glow is a bit too much early on). Flashbacks play a key role and the battle scenes are brutal and realistic, as is a monstrous sandstorm that engulfs the young sons in a moment designed to convince us that Connor was a protective father, and carries the guilt of allowing them to fight the war.

Connor’s trip into Turkey allows for the clash of cultures, as he is truly an unwelcomed guest and a proverbial fish out of water. If not for the enterprising young boy that guides him through some tough spots, Mr. Connor’s trip may have been short-lived. Instead he struggles through clashes with the British, the Greeks and especially Turkish Major Hasan (an excellent Yilmaz Erdogan).

While the cultural and personality clashes are entertaining, the stereotypes and simplifications are somewhat tougher to accept. A romantic interlude with the hotel owner (Olga Kurylenko) is maybe the most out-of-place segment of a dramatic movie we have seen in awhile. Crowe and Kurylenko are both fine actors, but this makes little sense and distracts from Connor’s mission. We can only assume the Producers demanded a little romance to offset the downbeat war segments and cash in on Crowe.

Crowe shows promise as a director, and if the film has any box office success, we can hope he will have a bit more input into what stays and what goes in his next project.

watch the trailer:

 


UNBROKEN (2014)

December 27, 2014

 

unbroken Greetings again from the darkness. Louis Zamperini was a true American hero and his life story is epic and legendary. The son of Italian immigrants, young Louie easily found trouble, and only the efforts of his older brother and a local police officer allowed him to discover inner strength through his talent for distance running. As a 19 year old, Louie ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and later enlisted in the Air Force and served as a bombardier during WWII. After a horrible plane crash, he spent a grueling 47 days adrift at sea in a life raft, until rescued/captured by the Japanese. Zamperini served as a Prisoner of War, where he was subjected to immense physical and psychological torture, until the war finally ended.

Zamperini’s story has long deserved to be made into a movie, and it has bounced around Hollywood since 1957. However, it wasn’t until Laura Hillenbrand’s biography on Zamperini became a best seller in 2010 that the film version was given the go-ahead. With screenplay credits for Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, cinematography from the great Roger Deakins (the first Air Force battle sequence is breath-taking), and a score from Alexandre Desplat, it was a bit surprising when Angelina Jolie was named director. After all, she only had one previous credit as a director, and that film (In the Land of Blood and Honey, 2011) was nowhere near the scope of this project.

Given the true life inspirational story and the truly heroic events of its featured character, the film can best be labeled a mild disappointment. It is extremely impressive to look at, but somehow lacking in emotion … despite some excruciatingly uncomfortable moments. The film strives for the level of historic epic, yet its conventional tone and approach leave us wondering what’s missing. The single most effective and emotional moment occurs in a short clip of the real Louis Zamperini running as an Olympic torch bearer at age 80 for the 1998 Olympics (in Japan!).

Jack O’Connell pours everything he has into capturing the spirit of Zamperini, and he is certainly an actor to keep an eye on. Japanese rock star Miyaki plays “The Bird” Watanabe, a sadistic POW camp commander who brutalized Zamperini, but Miyaki lacks the chops to pull off this crucial role – going a bit heavy on the posturing. The film uses the line “If you can take it, you can make it” as its rallying cry, but too many gaps are left for the audience to bridge as we watch Louie go from a punk kid to a war hero with almost mystical courage and perseverance. Other supporting work comes from Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney and CJ Valleroy (as young Louie).

unbroken2 On paper, all the pieces are in place for an Oscar contender, and the film may very well play well with voters. My preference would have been to have the real life Louis Zamperini more involved … through either narration or interviews. He spent the second half of his life as a motivational speaker and story-teller, and would have added an incredible element to the film. Unfortunately, Mr. Zamperini (pictured left) died 4 months prior to the release of the film so he never saw the finished product. It’s likely he died knowing that his legacy is part of American history and that he did in fact “make it”.


THE IMITATION GAME (2014)

December 26, 2014

Imitation Game Greetings again from the darkness. This year’s holiday movie season has presented us with three very different war-based films – each a potential Oscar contender, and each with its own life lesson.  Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (the excellent Headhunters, 2011) brings Andrew Hodges’ biographical book  to the screen in the form of the remarkable and true story of Alan Turing, the man credited by many (including Winston Churchill) for helping win WWII.

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptoanalyst. He was also homosexual. Celebrated for his work in helping Great Britain crack the German’s “Enigma” messages, he was also persecuted (through chemical castration) for his homosexuality. His suicide at age 41 (1954) was the likely result of his “treatment” during an era when such “unacceptable” behavior overshadowed any and all mental genius.

The film utilizes Turing’s 1951 police interrogation by a sympathetic and curious detective (Rory Kinnear) as a framing device for the three significant time periods of his life. We see Turing as a bullied schoolboy (played by Alex Lawther) discovering the early signs of his own brilliance, as well as his first love. Most significantly, we witness Turing’s work with the Hut 8 team at Bletchley Park as they worked on complex code-breaking; and finally we see the remnants of a broken man, bathed in solitude and work, who has no real place in society.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an astounding performance as Alan Turing. We cannot take our eyes off of him, despite his Asperger’s-type social awkwardness. Cumberbatch manages to expertly capture each extreme emotion that befalls Turing, not the least of which is the frustration of the genius, when lesser minds are unable to follow his vision. Some of the best scenes are of Turing’s confrontations with a Royal Navy Commander (perfectly played by Charles Dance), and of course, the critical moments with the other members of his code-breaking team (including Matthew Goode and Keira Knightley).

There are so many aspects to Turing’s story: his impact on ending the war, how society treats true genius, his isolated childhood and final years, the extreme lack of civil rights for homosexuals of the time, and how his work on “Christopher” led to the development of computers. The second half of the film certainly presents the moral quandary, and the performance of Cumberbatch as a tortured genius overpowers any clichés that might creep in. Alexandre Desplat’s piano and strings score is a nice compliment without ever becoming overbearing, and the use of actual war newsreels adds just enough reminder of what the mission was for this group of geeks (today’s terminology).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in how brains, not just brawn, can impact a war OR you want to see one of the best performances of the year by an actor in a lead role

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting WWII battlefield reenactments

Watch the trailer:

 

 


FURY (2014)

October 18, 2014

fury Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker takes on WWII, he better have something new to say or a new way to show it. Director David Ayer (highly recommend his End of Watch, 2012) literally takes us inside a Sherman tank with its crew of 5 men, including their leader played by Brad Pitt.

Having the tank as a centerpiece brings a level of claustrophobia to the treacherous German war front. The battle scenes are excruciatingly tense, and actually beautifully filmed. This may seem an odd description for a war movie, but bouncing from inside the tank to the German countryside is done with such style that it provides contrast to the brutality and violence of war.

Pitt’s crew is made up of Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal (especially good). They are forced to take on a rookie with no tank training … but he can type 60 words per minute. Logan Lerman plays the rookie and he brings the natural sensitivity we’ve come to expect from his roles in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Noah. We buy off on the difficult transition since the others have fought campaigns together in Africa, Belgium and France. Jason Isaacs is also well cast as an Allied forces captain.

What works here are the battle sequences. What doesn’t really work are the numerous moments of personal drama injected to help us understand how war can change a man … no matter how hard he tries to hold on to his humanity. The sequence with the two German women, a piano and fried eggs seems especially drawn out and unbelievable. We understand the point pretty quickly, but the extended sequence becomes downright awkward.

The most interesting question the movie asks is whether a soldier can be so disgusted and sick of war, yet somehow addicted to the action. Mr. Ayers previously wrote U-571 (2000), so he is clearly interested in the mentality of soldiers in a claustrophobic setting. More of this approach would have been welcome here.

***NOTE: The film uses actual WWII tanks, and it’s the first time a Tiger I tank has been used in film.

***NOTE: Just a personal note here, but every time Brad Pitt said anything, I flashed back to his role in Inglourious Basterds. A change of inflection would have helped.

watch the trailer:

 


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