12 STRONG (2018)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. During the movie, Afghanistan is referred to as “the graveyard of many empires”. Traditionally, January is the graveyard of most new movie releases, so it’s a pleasant surprise when we see an entertaining, well-made and historically interesting film, and it’s still mid-January!  Doug Stanton’s book “Horse Soldiers” is the source material for director Nicolai Fuglsig’s first feature film, and it’s anything but a disappointment.

The film opens on September 11, 2001 and subjects us, yet again, to those horrific images seared into the minds of anyone alive on that day. What most of us didn’t know, was that about a month later, a team of U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) were being dropped into the rough and mostly unfriendly terrain of Afghanistan. This ridiculously courageous team of 12 men had one mission: secure Mazar-i-Sharif to prevent a takeover by the Taliban.

An early scene tells us this won’t be the usual blind patriotism we often see on screen. One of the soldiers, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), is told (with a bit of anger) by his wife, “I’ll love you when you get back.” This contrasts to the usual loyal and stiff-upper-lip military wife we see in most war movies. Another wife scrubs the oven rather than snuggle with her man, while yet another coerces a taboo pledge to come home to her.

Chris Hemsworth (THOR) plays Captain Mitch Nelson, the intelligent but not-yet-battle-tested leader of a special ops team. The plan is for Nelson and his team to connect with General Dostum, an Afghan War Lord in charge of the Northern Alliance, and fight together to gain control of Mazar. After arriving at a local outpost nicknamed “The Alamo” (34 miles from town), the team gets their first surprise … they must split up and cover the ground on horseback. Filmed in New Mexico, the journey is miserable and filled with danger – an ambush could occur at any moment, or perhaps they are being set-up by those they have been ordered to trust.

Horseback riding, caves, the weather, and the elements of the terrain are all challenges, but none of it compares to facing the Taliban forces which number in the thousands, and feature tanks, rocket launchers and an endless supply of weaponry. Director Fuglsig utilizes a “Days in Country” counter so that we can get some semblance of time and ongoing misery being fought through by the Americans. But no day is normal when the soldiers are on horseback while being attacked by tanks. The odds seem unsurmountable.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the story and welcome approaches of the film is back-and-forth between Captain Nelson and General Dostum. Initially, Dostum shows little respect by telling the young officer that he lacks “the eyes of a killer” and isn’t yet a warrior, and he spends a great deal of time lecturing and philosophizing on Nelson’s behalf. Of course, the lessons may be frustrating in the moment, but aren’t lost on Nelson as there is a huge payoff at the peak of the key battle.

The battle scenes come in all sizes – small skirmishes and massive, large scale assaults. Each is intense and dramatic and well-staged, though there are some moments where we shake our head in disbelief. At least we do until we remember that this is a true story, and despite that, it is truly unbelievable.

The supporting cast includes Michael Pena and his snappy punchlines, Trevante Rhodes (MOONLIGHT), William Fichtner with a shaved head, Elsa Pataky – Hemsworth’s real life wife as his screen wife, Taylor Sheridan, Geoff Stults and Jack Kesy. Rob Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers, who was Riggle’s commanding officer when he served in the Marines. The previously mentioned Michael Shannon is a bit underutilized, but the film’s best moments are those with Hemsworth and Navid Negahban (as General Dostum). You likely recognize Negahban as Abu Nazir from “Homeland”. It’s their exchanges that show how the line between allies and enemies is not always crystal clear – even if they are fighting for the same thing.

Writers Peter Craig (THE TOWN) and Ted Tally (Oscar winner for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) do a nice job of character development, and the camaraderie of the 12 men of ODA 595 seems authentic – despite some schmaltzy moments over their 23 days of Task Force Dagger. Early on, we are informed that the most important thing to take to war is “a reason why”, and then towards the end, Dostum explains that the United States is in a no-win situation: we are cowards if we go, and enemies if we stay. It’s chilling commentary on a war that has dragged on much too long … despite the heroic efforts of the 12 horse soldiers.

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FOREVER MY GIRL (2018)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. To determine if this is your type of movie, you need only answer one question: Are you a Nicholas Sparks fan? Even though this is based on a novel by Heidi McLaughlin and not Nicholas Sparks, no normal person would be able to tell the difference, as the formula and story structure is very familiar (even the marketing campaign capitalizes on this). Perhaps that is the key to the success of movies like this – the stories are like a warm, comfy blanket to some folks.

Picturesque (and fictional) St Augustine, Louisiana is the setting for the love story of Liam and Josie. Things get off to a rocky start as the jilted bride is stranded on her wedding day. The film jumps ahead 8 years and we find that Liam (Alex Roe, THE 5TH WAVE) is now a country music superstar with a drinking problem and a duct-taped flip phone, while Josie (Jessica Rothe, HAPPY DEATH DAY) is a successful business owner and single mom. It’s at this point where you could most assuredly guess what happens next, as predictability and commitment to the formula are the mission.

Bethany Ashton Wolf is the writer/director and her film benefits from the presence of star-in-the-making Alex Roe and the precocious Abby Ryder Fortson as Josie’s daughter. Mr. Roe spends much of the movie in various stages of sweat (I guess that’s supposed to be sexy?), but the camera loves him and he has a unique approach that sets him apart from the endless line of pretty boy actors. Young Miss Fortson has already played the daughter of ANT-MAN and she has the ability to come off as normal kid, rather than an actress playing a kid.

John Benjamin Hickey (Liam’s dad), Gillian Vigman (publicist), Tyler Riggs (Josie’s brother), and Peter Cambor (Liam’s agent) fill the supporting roles, and it’s Travis Tritt who adds an all-too-brief touch of authenticity to the music and local saloon. The movie is exactly what it portends to be … nothing more, nothing less. If it’s to your taste, it’ll be that soft comforter that brings you serenity. If it’s not your style, it will likely be as itchy and scratchy as a new wool horse blanket.

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HAPPY END (2017)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has blessed us with, what I consider, at least five excellent movies (AMOUR, THE WHITE RIBBON, CACHE, FUNNY GAMES, THE PIANO TEACHER), and though it’s been 5 years since his last, there is always a welcome anticipation for his next project. Unfortunately, this latest is esoteric and disjointed even beyond his usual style. In fact, at face value, it just seems only to be an accusation lobbed at the wealthy, stating that their privilege and cluelessness brings nothing but misery and difficulty to themselves and the rest of society.

We open on an unknown kid’s secretive cell phone video filming of her mother getting ready for bed, followed by the mistreatment of a pet hamster as a lab rat, and finally video of her mother passed out on the sofa – just prior to an ambulance being called. Our attention is then turned to a family estate in Calais, which is inhabited by the octogenarian patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintigant), his doctor son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), Anne’s malcontent son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), Thomas’ wife and infant son, and the Moroccan couple who are household servants. While her mother is being treated for an overdose, 13 year old Eve (Fantine Harduin), moves in to the estate (Thomas is her re-married father). It’s here that we learn the opening scenes were Eve’s video work … clearly establishing her as a damaged soul.

Initially, it seems as though we will see the family through Eve’s eye, but what follows instead is the peeling back of family layers exposing the darkness and menace that haunts each of these characters. Georges appears to be intent on finding a way out of the life that has imprisoned his body and is now slowly taking his mind through dementia. Thomas is carrying on an illicit affair through raunchy email exchanges. Anne is trying to protect the family construction business from the incompetence of her son Pierre, while also looking for love with solicitor Toby Jones. At times, we are empathetic towards Eve’s situation, but as soon as we let down our guard, her true colors emerge. The film is certainly at its best when Ms. Harduin’s Eve is front and center. Her scene with her grandfather Georges uncovers their respective motivators, and is chilling and easily the film’s finest moment.

The film was a Cannes Palme d’Or nominee, but we sense that was in respect to Mr. Haneke’s legacy, and not for this particular film. The disjointed pieces lack the necessary mortar, or even a linking thread necessary for a cohesive tale. What constitutes a happy end … or is one even possible? Perhaps that’s the theme, but the film leaves us with a feeling of incompleteness – or perhaps Haneke just gave up trying to find such an ending, and decided commentary on the “bourgeois bubble” was sufficient.

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THE MEMORY OF FISH (2018, doc)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nutritionists consistently advocate for the consumption of more salmon for a healthy diet … wild salmon, specifically. It’s one of the few dietary recommendations that hardly anyone bemoans. Most of us really enjoy a tasty grilled salmon, and the fact that it’s “good” for us puts it in the rare food category of ‘yummy and healthy’ (not an officially recognized category).  It’s what would be a perfect plan, were it not for the challenges in tracking down true wild salmon at the local supermarket. Salmon habitat and breeding grounds have been compromised and even destroyed through encroachment, and for the needs of the human race.

It’s exactly this situation, and the decades-long efforts of one man, that are the focus of this documentary from co-directors Jennifer Galvin and Sachi Cunningham. Dick Goin lives on the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest, and he is especially connected to the Elhwa River. The film opens with his recorded voice from 1983 as he discusses his memories of the river packed with 50-60 pound salmon taking advantage of the gravel river bottom, and then how they basically disappeared when the two giant dams were built to supply power to the area.

Mr. Goin describes the river as being broken from 1911 through 2014 when the dams were in place. He emotionally describes his personal conflict at working for one of the mills being powered by the dams … even as he was fighting for their destruction in order to free the river. Working at the mill was a choice necessary for life – a difficult decision that required compromise. The dams, though engineering marvels, were the enemy of nature.

Clearly passionate, the elderly Mr. Goin speaks with humble respect and awe of the “madhouse” river. The underwater photography is effective, especially when blended with the archival footage from previous interviews Mr. Goin conducted. The video clips of the dams being destroyed are fascinating, but not nearly as gut-wrenching as the once vital Mr. Goin slowly and unsteadily makes his way back to the river, after the dam destruction, so he can personally witness the return of the salmon. As he describes the efforts of a struggling salmon as having done what she was here for … we can’t help but acknowledge the parallels with Mr. Goin’s own life.


PHANTOM THREAD (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is a certain feeling that envelops me while experiencing exquisite filmmaking. It’s a singular blend of peacefulness and excitement as an anticipation of greatness builds in those early scenes. That feeling has rarely swept over me as quickly as the opening moments of this new film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, a six-time Oscar nominee.

We need only watch Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) go through his morning ritual to understand that he is a fastidious individual to the point that could easily be described as obsessive-compulsive. It’s 1955 London, and this is the House of Woodcock. He lives and works in a home that serves as the canvas for his art, as well as a place to lay his head for sleep. His art is dressmaking. It’s also his obsession and purpose for living. This is the story of a man with transformative talent, who, despite his stated lack of need for those outside his solitary realm, is dragged into the humanity of love and caring.

This is an odd film about odd people. It’s about a dressmaker and it features people making beautiful clothes … yet it’s not a fashion movie. No, this is the study of a genius man and his muse – who is also his lover – and their unconventional saga of love. It’s also a consistently funny movie (and surprisingly so). Evidence that that 3 will always be a crowd, Woodcock’s devoted sister and buttoned-up business partner Cyril (a terrific Leslie Manville) runs a tight ship, while simultaneously using her near preternatural ability to read his moods and idiosyncrasies and respond accordingly. He refers to her as “my old so-and-so” in a way that reflects a lifelong bond unlikely to be broken.

The woman who prevents this from simply being a story of a reclusive genius is the aforementioned muse Alma (played by the effervescent Vicky Krieps). Is she his muse, a model, or his lover? Well, yes to all. And yet those labels fall short in describing the subtleties and nuances of their relationship. When does she play which role in order to maintain the balance so key to his work? Alma is often confused about the best approach in any moment, but she reaches him as none before. When she tells Woodcock that a certain client “doesn’t deserve your dress”, it strikes a chord with him that no one else has ever understood. It’s as close to ‘getting him’ as one can attain.

Ms. Krieps goes toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in their scenes. He is simply the greatest living actor, and maybe the best ever at his profession. Her blushy cheeks and determined eye of observation bely an inner strength that isn’t necessarily obvious at first glance. The twist in this “romance” is unlike any other love story from the big screen. While he is haunted by the memories of a cherished mother, Alma presents a more immediate force of reckoning. Is she his tender savior or a menace of danger? It’s fascinating to watch this unfold.

Most know by now that Daniel Day-Lewis has announced this will be his final acting role. We can only compare this to the retirements of Sandy Koufax or Jim Brown. We feel cheated by the void of greatness left by their departures, and if this is truly his final role, the DDL legacy is supremely secure. His meticulous performance shines not only through the quirky OCD moments, but even moreso in the seemingly spontaneous moments of bickering and annoyance … moments that come across ad-libbed instead of scripted – these sound (and feel) like real life arguments!

Supposedly, filmmaker Anderson based the character on Spanish-Basque designer Cristobal Balenciaga, and Day-Lewis research added other elements of authenticity. It’s their first movie together since the fantastic THERE WILL BE BLOOD ten years ago, and theirs seems to be a synchronicity that few actors and directors ever share. Mr. Anderson shot the movie himself, and his use of close-ups – faces, fingers, sewing needles – capture the delicacies as well as the power. The final piece of this glorious puzzle is the orchestral score provided by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. It’s both prominent and intricate, with stunning piano work that stands on its own. This is a movie about greatness by those who are also great.

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PADDINGTON 2 (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The sequel to the hit 2014 PADDINGTON movie reunites most of the cast, as well as the director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby. Unfortunately, Michael Bond, Paddington Bear’s creator and author of more than 150 affiliated books passed away in 2017, and was not able to see this most charming follow-up. The beloved little bear first hit UK bookstores in 1958 and has been part of the childhood of every generation of kids since. Now the movies have given life to the little bear with the red hat, blue coat and tiny suitcase.

The entirety of the Brown family returns: Sally Hawkins as Mary, Hugh Bonneville as Henry, Madeleine Harris as Judy, Samuel Joslin as Jonathan, Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird, and Jim Broadbent as Mr. Gruber. Also back are Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as the voices of Paddington’s “aunt” and “uncle”, and of course, Ben Whishaw returns as the familiar voice of the adored and oh-so-polite bear.

Most notable among the new faces are Brendan Gleeson as Nuckles (that’s with a capital N), and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, this story’s two-faced (and maybe more) villain. You’ve likely never seen the usually reserved and proper Mr. Grant in a role quite so colorful and flamboyant. He seems to be having a devilishly good time.

As the movie begins, we are quickly assimilated into the community where Paddington has made such a difference. The core element to this bear is that he treats all with kindness and finds the best in each person. The results of this approach are clear in how his neighbors enthusiastically greet him each morning … it’s a reminder of the power of kindness. Only when Phoenix Buchanan’s dastardly deed and actions catch Paddington in the crossfire does the film take an abrupt left turn from his blissful life.

If the film has a flaw, it’s in a story that is likely too complex and intricate for the youngest viewers to follow. However, it’s that story that older kids (and grown-ups) will most appreciate and relate to. Younger kids may be lost at times, but there are enough visual pratfalls and bear hijinks to keep them oohing and aahing and laughing – I witnessed these reactions in a theatre that was about half-filled with kids.

This sequel will probably be viewed as an improvement to what was a pretty entertaining original. There is enjoyment for all ages, and it’s a rare combination of cuteness and charm with a strong message of kindness. If that’s not enough for you, stay for the credits and take in the Bollywood-style musical number that will erase any doubts you might have had about Hugh Grant’s commitment to the mission.

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ABE & PHIL’S LAST POKER GAME (2018)

January 9, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There really isn’t an age where one’s level of horniness is of interest to the outside world. The topic is certainly cringe-inducing as we listen in on two old men bemoaning their current state of dysfunction, while simultaneously recalling their glorious past conquests. Were these two gents played by lesser actors than screen legends Martin Landau and Paul Sorvino, there would be no need to tune in.

Writer/director Howard Weiner (a Neurologist and Harvard professor – thanks Google) delivers his first narrative feature film as a statement on old age, pride and dying. In Mr. Landau’s final film, he plays Dr. (not Mister!) Abe Mandelbaum (I’m giving credit as a “Seinfeld” reference, whether intentional or not), who, along with his dementia-riddled wife Molly (Ann Marie Shea), moves into Cliffside Manor – a Retirement Center and Nursing Home. Abe quickly bonds with fellow resident Phil (Mr. Sorvino) as the two exchange dirty jokes and tales of yesteryear.

The other story line involves a nurse (Maria Dizzia, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE) who has reason to believe the biological father she’s never met is a resident at the manor. The obvious development is whether Abe or the notoriously womanizing Phil might be her father. Other minor story lines include the center’s director (Alexander Cook) who admittedly hates old people as he searches for a miracle potion to prevent his own aging, Molly’s struggle with dementia which can only be soothed with her fur coat or relief in bed, and a last hurrah field trip to a local sports bar with the nurse, Abe and Phil.

If not for the vulgarities and three of the most uncomfortable sex scenes you’ve likely ever witnessed, this would have been a textbook Lifetime Channel movie. Watching two pros like Mr. Landau and Mr. Sorvino go at each other is quite a treat – though you best enjoy old men talking about sex, as the subtleties of pride, masculinity and self-identity of men are mere afterthoughts here. Oscar winner Landau (ED WOOD) deserved a send-off more in line with Harry Dean Stanton’s LUCKY, but fortunately he has a 60 year career as his legacy.

watch the trailer: