MAN DOWN (2016)

December 3, 2016

man-down Greetings again from the darkness. Perhaps this movie and story would have hit me harder had I not recently watched Michael King’s documentary When War Comes Home. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the focus of both films, but the reality of the three soldiers in King’s film simply packs a bigger emotional punch than the fictionalized version of one soldier in this latest from director Dito Montiel. That said, the dramatization offers a few worthy moments.

The story/stories revolve around a new Marine named Gabriel Drummer (played by Shia LaBeouf). We are bounced between three timeframes: a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world; the time Gabriel is serving on the frontlines of Afghanistan; the pre-Marines time when we see Gabriel as a loving father, husband and friend … he’s the kind of dad who surprises his son with a birthday puppy, and creates a secret phrase so he can tell his son he loves him without embarrassing him at school.

An interrogation sequence between Gabriel and the military counselor (played by the great Gary Oldman) provides the film’s best scenes … the two actors go head to head in what is really psychological warfare in a trailer office. There is an “incident” that occurred, and the counselor is attempting to figure out Gabriel’s mental state. Once we are provided the details of the incident, we fully understand why Gabriel is an emotional mess, and basically shut-down from conversation and life.

Kate Mara appears as Gabriel’s wife and Charlie Shotwell (Captain Fantastic) as his son. The film probably would have benefitted from more attention on the family foundation prior to Gabriel being shipped out. Jai Courtney stars as Gabriel’s close and lifelong friend, though when Gabriel asks his friend to “watch out for my family”, we know where things are headed. It’s here where the film just stretches too far. The effects of war provided plenty to make the point director Montiel is going for, and the cheap/clumsy gimmick only distracts.

LaBeouf is in fine form and in quite a different role than his quick-with-a-quip charmer in this year’s American Honey. This latest film probably has more in common with A Beautiful Mind than with Born on the Fourth of July, or any other film dealing with post-war challenges. The statistics posted prior to the closing credits make it obvious that Montiel meant this as a message movie – making the melodrama and extreme visuals all the more misplaced. Montiel made some festival noise with his 2006 debut A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and it seems he is destined to make a really good movie at some point.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


ALLIED (2016)

November 22, 2016

allied Greetings again from the darkness. Every writer, director and actor dreams of being part of the next Casablanca … a timeless movie beloved by so many. It’s rare to see such a blatant homage to that classic, but director Robert Zemekis (Oscar winner for Forrest Gump) and writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) deliver their version with an identical setting, nearly identical costumes, and the re-use of a song (“La Marseillaise”) which played such a crucial role.

Spy movies typically fall into one of three categories: action (Bourne), flashy/stylish (Bond), or detailed and twisty (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). This one has offers a dose of each blended with some romance and a vital “is she or isn’t she” plot. The “she” in that last part is French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour played by Marion Cotillard. Her introduction here is a thing of beauty, as she floats across the room thrilled to be reuniting with her husband Max Vatan. Of course the catch is that Max (Brad Pitt) is really a Canadian Agent and their marriage is a cover for their mission to assassinate a key Nazi. Yes, it’s 1942 in Morocco.

The two agents work well together and it’s no surprise when this escalates to a real romance between two beautiful and secretive people. It seems only natural that after killing Nazi’s and making love in a car during a ferocious sandstorm that the next steps would be marriage, a move to London, and having a kid. It’s at this point where viewers will be divided. Those loving the action-spy approach will find the London segment slows the movie to a crawl. Those who prefer intelligence gathering and intrigue may very well enjoy the second half more.

What if your assignment was to kill your beloved wife if she were deemed to be a double-agent? Max finds himself in this predicament, and since no one ever says what they mean in the community of spies, he isn’t sure if the evidence is legit or if it’s really a game to test his own loyalty. This second half loses sight of the larger picture of war, and narrows the focus on whether Max can prove the innocence of Marianne … of course without letting her know he knows something – or might know something.

Marion Cotillard is stellar in her role. She flashes a warm and beautiful smile that expertly masks her true persona. The nuance and subtlety of her performance is quite impressive. Mr. Pitt does a nice job as the desperate husband hiding his desperation, but his role doesn’t require the intricacies of hers. Supporting work comes via Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, August Diehl, Marion Bailey, Simon McBurney, and Matthew Goode.

The Zemekis team is all in fine form here: Cinematographer Don Burgess captures the feel of the era, Composer Alan Silvestri never tries to overpower a scene, and Costume Designer Joanna Johnston is likely headed for an Oscar nomination. For a spy movie, the story is actually pretty simple and the tension is never over-bearing like we might expect. While watching the performance of Ms. Cotillard, keep in mind her most telling line of dialogue: “I keep the emotions real.” It’s a strategy that is a bit unusual in her world. How effective it is will be determined by the end of the movie.

watch the trailer:

 


BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (2016)

November 17, 2016

billy-lynn Greetings again from the darkness. “Thank you for your service.” For those of us who have never served in the military, we say the words because we don’t know how else to show our appreciation. Do the words ring hollow to those in uniform? Maybe. Probably. But how else can we honor these brave souls? What if we have them share a stage with a pop singing group during halftime of a football game? It’s this line between honor and propaganda that takes up much of the new movie from two-time Oscar winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain).

The story is based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, and revolves around soldier Billy Lynn’s and his fellow “Bravo” squad members as they make the rounds back home (in 2004) for publicity after their intense battle sequence is caught on camera. There is much at play here: how the soldiers interact with each other, how they are treated by the general public, how they are used by the team’s owner and the Army for self-serving reasons, and how Billy juggles the stress of war, the spotlight of heroism, and the demands from his family.

Director Lee opted to experiment with the ultra-realism of the new 120 frames per second in 4k 3D, rather than the standard 24 fps. Though this may seem like a minor detail that shouldn’t be addressed in a review of the movie, it’s impossible to ignore this impact. Technical advancements in film and digital have resulted in some exciting new effects for movies, but this high speed approach creates a soap opera look and feel that will likely be disorienting to many viewers. Although the full effect will only be available in New York and Los Angeles (due to shortage of projectors), the clarity on the close-ups is distracting, while leaving the background quite fuzzy and out of focus. Many will find this new look to be “not right” for a movie, and prefer the traditional look. Others may embrace the heightened sense of reality … of being right there with the characters. Of course, this is Ang Lee’s film, so there is no shortage of stunning visuals and expert shots.

Beyond the technical aspects, this movie is simply a bit clunky to watch, not very well written (screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli), not very well acted, and has an overall awkward and unfinished feel to it. Kristen Stewart plays Billy’s sister, and her limited screen time is the best part of the movie. Newcomer Joe Alwyn makes a decent reluctant (and lucky) hero in playing Billy, but he doesn’t have the chops to overcome the script weakness and the burden of carrying so many scenes. This is especially obvious in his unrealistic bonding scenes with cheerleader Faison (played by Makenzie Leigh). Their scenes together are nearly unwatchable.

Supporting work comes from Vin Diesel as Billy’s philosophical officer in recurring flashbacks to the war, Garrett Hedlund as the current squad leader, a miscast Steve Martin as team owner Norm Oglesby (a Jerry Jones type), and Chris Tucker as the incessantly yammering agent/producer trying to put a movie deal together for the soldiers. Other minor contributors include Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McKinnon (in horrible make-up), Ismael Cruz Cordova, Deidre Lovejoy, and a couple of All-Pro players in Richard Sherman and JJ Watt.

Since there are some interesting and important elements to the story, the assumption here is that most effort went towards the experimental technical aspects. More attention to scene detail could have more effectively contrasted the soldier’s take on war versus the never-ending inclination of Americans to turn most anything into more and bigger entertainment … even Destiny’s Child isn’t enough. The questionable filmmaking decisions leave us with the shell of a good story, and too many sappy close-ups of actors emoting directly to the camera lens. The soldier vs hero debate deserves better, and the propaganda aspect deserves a more critical eye.

watch the trailer:

 

 


HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

November 3, 2016

hacksaw-ridge Greetings again from the darkness. Why doesn’t every high school student learn about Desmond Doss in History class? Beyond that, why isn’t Desmond Doss profiled in every Psychology and Philosophy class? It’s inexplicable that more Americans aren’t familiar with his story, much less failing to honor his legacy with a well deserved tribute. Fortunately director Mel Gibson (Braveheart) and screenwriters Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) and Robert Schenkkan (“The Pacific”) bring us a spirited look at this underappreciated American war hero.

Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) plays Desmond Doss and perfectly embodies the conviction and dedication of this extraordinary (not hyperbole in this case) man. See, Desmond Doss was one of the first conscientious objectors in the U.S. Army. His religious beliefs (Seventh Day Adventist) prohibited him from using a weapon or killing another person … two things that don’t go over well with fellow soldiers or commanding officers. Yet, Doss was committed to serving his country as a medic and saving lives, rather than taking them.

Unbelievable may be the best description even though his story is absolutely true. Credited with saving the lives of at least 75 wounded soldiers, Doss and his fellow soldiers are depicted in the film fighting the Battle of Okinawa at Hacksaw Ridge … a topographical challenge punctuated by the need to climb a rope wall in order to scale the face of the cliff. Their reward was facing thousands of Japanese hiding in tunnels and bunkers, waiting patiently to kill in mass. There will be no spoilers here on the courageous actions of Doss … you should see for yourself.

The early part of the film features a heart-warming first love story involving Desmond Doss and Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer, The Choice). Watching young love bloom is precious and provides a stark contrast to the battle scenes. The two make a lovely couple and we can’t help but root for them. Once Doss hits basic training, we find Vince Vaughn in the role of Sergeant Howell, Sam Worthington (failing to hide his Aussie accent) as Captain Glover, and Luke Bracey (Point Break, 2015) as Smitty, one of the soldiers who initially has no interest in serving with Doss. The Army Psychologist is played by Richard Roxburgh, whom movies lovers will recognize as The Duke from Moulin Rouge! (2001).

Some of the best scenes involve Desmond’s parents played by screen vets Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths. Both are excellent in roles requiring very different and extreme emotional moments. It’s a credit to Gibson’s filmmaking expertise that he is able to add depth to all aspects – family turmoil, a classic love story, the brutality of war, and the deep religious convictions. There are a few moments of “artistic license” and some of the CGI is inconsistent and even over-produced at times, but the intensity of the battle scenes rival that of Saving Private Ryan and the landing at Omaha Beach. It’s a passionate piece of filmmaking centered on a most passionate man. You may disagree with much of what Mel Gibson has said and done in his personal life (and I hope you do), but as a film director he has earned much respect. And speaking of respect … Desmond Doss. Enough said.

watch the trailer:

 


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.

watch the trailer:

 


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.

watch the trailer:

 


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: