ANTHROPOID (2016)

August 12, 2016

Anthropoid Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been more than 70 years since the Second World War ended, and it’s still producing fascinating stories, books, and movies. Director Sean Ellis co-wrote the script with Anthony Frewin after tireless research into a secret mission of the Czech resistance known as Operation Anthropoid. The purpose was to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, third in command of The Reich behind only Hitler and Himmler.

Hitler invaded Poland the year after taking Czechoslovakia and put Heydrich in charge. In addition to being the main architect behind the Final Solution, Heydrich became known as “The Butcher of Prague” as thousands of citizens were slain under his reign of terror.

The story is split into two distinct parts … the buildup and the aftermath. It’s late 1941 when we see Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) parachute into the territory outside of Prague and make their way to the city only to discover their contact has been killed. Over the next few months, the two soldiers spend time planning, observing and blending in, while living with their host family – the Moravecs. They become attached to two local ladies (Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislorova), first as cover for the mission, and then in a more personal manner as tension builds and the mission gets closer.

Many of the original, historic and actual locations are used which adds an element of realism to a story that’s already plenty real and emotional. The second half of the story is what happens after the assassination. Seven of the original parachutists go into hiding in the basement of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral. The manhunt is brutal and extensive, and once the hideout is discovered, a seemingly unending parade of German soldiers and ever-increasing weaponry are unleashed. It’s a beautifully filmed, but gut-wrenching scene … think of the last stand at The Alamo.

An extended shootout (6 hours in real time) may not seem like a fun day at the movies, but this story goes to the bravery and desperation of those who refused to give in to the relentless savagery of the Germans. In addition to Ms. Le Bon and Ms. Geislorova, Czech screen vet Alena Mihulova is another standout here. The pacing of the story telling is a bit off at times, but director Ellis brings historical accuracy to a fascinating story in ways that movies such as Valkyrie and Inglourious Basterds didn’t even attempt. As courageous as those in the resistance were, the aftermath and reprisals do beg the question … was it worth the price? Not an easy question to answer even in hindsight.

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A WAR (Krigen, Denmark, 2015)

February 11, 2016

a war Greetings again from the darkness. Distinguishing between right and wrong has always been pretty easy for me, which probably explains my fascination when a good book or movie presents a decision weighted by moral ambiguity … especially one involving life and death. Such is the case with writer/director Tobias Lindholm’s (A Hijacking, 2012) latest, which has been Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (Denmark). It’s tension-filled and overflowing with moments that will make you question yourself and your beliefs.

Three parts make up the whole, and each segment brings its own pressures and is presented with its own camera technique. We see Commander Claus Pederson (Pilou Asbaek) leading his squad of Danish soldiers in their Afghan peace-keeping missions. The film bounces between these boots on the ground and Pederson’s wife (Tuva Novotny) back at home in Denmark trying to maintain a sense of normalcy for their three kids. The final act is a tense courtroom drama that will undoubtedly mess with your head.

Mr. Asbaek (“Game of Thrones” and the upcoming Ben-Hur remake) is spell-binding as Commander Pederson. When a land mine causes the loss of one of his men, Pederson proves that he is no desk-jockey, but rather a leader by example. He has a calm presence that inspires his men, though his fearless approach is quietly questioned by some. His in-the-heat-of-the-moment decision with his squad under fire saves the life of an injured soldier, while also resulting in a tragedy that could affect his military career, his family life, and his freedom.

It’s interesting to see how director Lindholm parallels the struggles of Mr. and Mrs. Pederson … albeit in different worlds. The personal and emotional challenges are everywhere and affect everyone. The 3 kids miss their father and struggle in their own ways with their new world. The wife misses her husband and battles to keep the kids in line. The husband misses his wife and their closeness. He also misses the little joys that come with being a (present) father. The soldiers struggle with their orders to patrol a community that doesn’t seem to want them. Even the community struggles with the constant threat of danger.

Commander Pederson’s fateful decision is the focus of the courtroom drama. The dilemma faced by him and his men is truly a no-win situation. His job was to protect his men while also protecting the citizens of the community. It’s a judgment call in the heat of the moment. Either decision would be right and either decision would be wrong. The issue on trial is so complex that it’s very likely the desired verdict would be split among those in the theatre. When Pederson’s wife tells him “It’s not what you did that matters. It’s what you do now.” We certainly understand her, but do we agree? Is it possible to judge a war crime when lives are in immediate danger?  What would you do? Unless you’ve been in those boots, it’s impossible to know. The best intentions can be eclipsed by a will to live and quest to save those for whom you are responsible. Is lying ever OK, and if so, what is the fallout?  How does it impact you, those you love, and those whose respect you have earned?

This is an exceptionally well made movie with a script that constantly has us questioning our morals. while providing no easy answers.

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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.

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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.

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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”.