THE WALL (2017)

May 11, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a director’s filmography includes “big” action movies like Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and The Bourne Identity (the original), the last thing we expect is a stripped-down war movie whose camera focuses on a single character for most of the run time. Director Doug Liman certainly understands how to use the camera in creating tension and stress, yet while he and writer Dwain Worrell seem so intent on proving the confusion and futility of war, they seem to forget that a thriller needs either a hero to cheer or a villain to jeer.

It’s late 2007, and the war is winding down as rebuilding efforts are underway. Hulking Staff Sergeant Matthews (John Cena) and his fellow soldier Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) have been perched and camouflaged on the side a hill for more than 20 hours as they carry out reconnaissance on the site of an under-construction oil pipeline. All they have seen is the remains of a massacre – 8 bodies with no signs of life. Peering through his malfunctioning scope that once belonged to a now-dead friend, Isaac (known as “Ize” – get it?) and his training thinks something doesn’t seem right. When Matthews deems the site safe, he heads down to check it out. Of course, all heck breaks out and soon enough, an injured Isaac takes shelter behind a teetering stone wall. It turns out a sniper, more patient than the American soldiers, had been biding time for the moment.

The first eight bodies are construction contractors and a security detail … none of which matters to the sniper. The hook here is that the sniper hacks into Isaac’s radio and seemingly wants to chat it up, rather than finish him off. We never see the sniper, and neither do Matthews or Isaac … but we do hear him plenty. Laith Nakli voices Juba – known to American soldiers as the Angel of Death, responsible for dozens of US casualties. The film spirals into a psychological game of chess – or, more fittingly, the torture of Isaac. This isn’t the war we’ve come to expect in movies. Isaac’s situation seems hopeless, and banter with the man responsible never strikes him as a worthwhile pursuit.

The biggest issue here is that Juba seems the most interesting character, and not only are we never provided a way to connect with/hate him, we don’t even get enough backstory to bond with Isaac. Plenty of obstacles are thrown at Isaac: blowing sand, lack of drinking water, skittles for sustenance, blazing sun/heat, radio issues, and a brutally painful knee wound courtesy of Juba. The success of the movie depends on two things: Aaron Taylor-Johnson selling us on Isaac’s predicament, and the radio dialogue between he and Juba. The former is fine, but the latter falls short.

Better sniper movies include American Sniper and Enemy at the Gates, while more effective (mostly) one-character thrillers include Locke, Buried, and 127 Hours. The film makes excellent use of sound, but the little jabs at American ideals grows old quickly (such as asking who is the real terrorist). A different approach to a familiar topic deserves a chance, but while Juba only misses on purpose, the efforts of Mr. Liman and Mr. Worrell miss the mark by not engaging the viewer with the character(s).

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DANGER CLOSE (2017, doc)

April 27, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the third in a series of unparalleled looks at war from the front line courtesy of co-directors Christian Tureaud and David Salzberg. Their 2014 documentary The Hornet’s Nest followed war correspondent Mike Boettcher and his son as they covered the most violent era of the Afghanistan War, and 2015’s Citizen Soldier went inner circle with the Army National Guard’s 45th Infantry Combat team in Afghanistan. This time the focus is on the work of war correspondent Alex Quade, a female reporter (yes, her gender is worth noting) who documented missions carried out by Special Forces teams.

Ms. Quade’s interviews with Wendy R Anderson provide structure to the film and a chance for viewers to catch their breath in between combat videos. The interviews allow us to get a better feel for Ms. Quade’s personality and motivation. She states that after being around soldiers in such stressful and life-threatening times, she believes “I have to tell their stories”. These are stories we aren’t usually privy to on network news reports. These situations go beyond dangerous and require courage most of us can’t imagine.

There is some incredible early footage, much shot with night vision, which chronicles a large scale air assault ending in tragedy. The helicopters are being fired upon from ground-based weapons, and one is shot down. We then see how fast the rescue and recovery mission is implemented and how there is no hesitation in going in.

Ms. Quade makes this the personal story for one soldier – Rob Pirelli. She interviews his fellow soldiers, and even visits with Rob’s parents at their home. The film begins in 2007 and goes into 2008 where she tracks the progress of Combat Outpost Pirelli – a home for a Special Forces team.

This is outstanding and eye-opening journalism, and forces viewers to confront the atrocities and always present danger of war. There are times during the interviews where Alex Quade comes off a bit arrogant, but we are reminded of a quote that at times has been attributed to Muhammad Ali, Bear Bryant, and Dizzy Dean … “It ain’t bragging if …” Ms. Quade deserves much respect for her tenacity and bravery for doing what’s necessary to tell these stories.


THE PROMISE (2017)

April 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve said this before, but mixing romance with historical war time dramas is fraught with peril – it’s a difficult line to navigate for a movie. Writer/director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and co-writer Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) have delivered a sweeping historical epic that is immensely watchable by not over-blowing the romantic triangle, the war atrocities or the courage and bravery of the main characters.

The one-too-many lovers are played by the talented Oscar Isaac as medical student wannabe Mikael; Christian Bale as Chris, an American war correspondent; and blossoming international star Charlotte Le Bon as Ana, an American tutor based in Constantinople. These are three varied and distinct characters we accept because they have admirable qualities, as well as human flaws.

Mikael marries a local girl (Angela Sarafyan who was the robot with hypnotizing eyes HBO’s “Westworld”) for the sole purpose of using the dowry to pay for medical school. His “promise” is that he will return and learn to love her (so romantic!). Chris is a hard-driving and hard drinking journalist who is not welcome most anyplace he goes and finds himself in quite a predicament with his job, girlfriend and life. It’s not until later in the story that he flashes a caring heart underneath his armor of brash. Ana is nearly angelic at times in her goodness and with a smile that lights up the screen. Her devotion to Chris is as odd as her attraction to Mikael, but seeking logic in matters of love is often a journey without merit.

The story is based around the time of WWI and specifically highlights the Armenian Genocide – something the Turkish government denies to this day, referring to it instead as a “relocation” of nearly 1.5 million Armenians. The film began as a passion project for Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian, a businessman, philanthropist and the once owner of MGM Studios. He raised the money and helped assemble the team, but unfortunately passed away just before production began. He would undoubtedly be proud of the finished film, and find some solace (if not humor) in the fact that it hits theatres only a few weeks after The Ottoman Lieutenant, a Turkish government backed project that purposefully ignored the atrocities and leaned heavily to a singular view of history.

The cast is deep and includes (one of my favorites) Shohreh Aghdashloo as Mikael’s wise and courageous mother, Tom Hollander (“The Night Manager”) as a fellow prisoner of the Turks, James Cromwell as an American Ambassador, Rade Serbedzija as a leader of the Armenian resistance, and Jean Reno as a commander of the French Naval fleet that plays a vital role in 1915.

Cinematographer Javier Aguirresorobe captures some breathtaking vistas and desert landscapes, while also delivering the intimacy and urgency of both the romantic and dangerous moments (including a spectacular rain-drenched train sequence). The acting is superb throughout, with Bale dialing back his sometimes over-exuberant traits, Isaac giving us someone to pin our hopes on, and Ms. Le Bon bringing the compassion to an area when it’s so desperately needed. Expect to see her explode in popularity and respect when the right leading role comes along. Lastly, it’s rare that I would think this, but the film’s 2 hour and 14 minute run time might have benefited from an additional 10-15 minutes of detail towards the Turkish military strategies, and both the Armenian resistance and slaughter. It’s a part of history that should be neither ignored nor glossed over.

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THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017)

March 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Director Niki Caro (North Country, Whale Rider) introduces us to the story of zookeeper Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina. The couple is a stunning example of heroism and bravery and compassion – both in cuddling with tiger cubs and in assisting approximately 300 Jews escape to freedom during the Nazi invasion of Warsaw in 1939. You might think of this as Schindler’s Zoo.

We first see Antonina (Jessica Chastain) as an angelic figure pedaling her bike through the zoo during morning rounds with a trotting young camel alongside, and soon thereafter helping rescue a newborn elephant from peril. It’s an idealistic image that appears shattered as soon as the German bombs begin dropping on Warsaw and the zoo. But the true story of what actually happened is more heartwarming and inspiring than a dozen fuzzy bunnies or peach-eating hippos.

Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book was based on the diaries of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, and is adapted for the screen by Angela Workman. Yes, that’s right … a woman director and woman writer collaborating on a film version of a book written by a woman about another woman! Some may say the film is too glossy and skips over the brutality of the Nazi’s, but this is the story of a brave, compassionate woman and how she and her husband risked their lives to save others. There is no shortage of films that depict the horrific tragedies that occurred in concentration camps, so it seems we should certainly celebrate the kind and courageous who did all they could in rescue efforts, as they used the Warsaw Zoo as a way to hide Jews in plain sight.

In addition to Ms. Chastain, who sports an unusual Russian accent throughout, Johan Heldenberg plays her husband, and Daniel Bruhl plays Lutz Heck – Hitler’s Chief Zoologist at the Berlin Zoo. The scenes between Heck and Antonina are excruciating as he first charms her with his love of animals, and then later frightens her with his unwanted advances and desire to cross-breed animals in hopes of creating superbeasts (sound familiar?).

One of the key messages seems to come from an early monologue delivered by Antonina where she compares the purity of animals (their eyes tell you everything) with the propensity to deceive and commonplace of ulterior motives in humans. While she prefers one approach over the other, it’s obvious that Antonina values all life and will pay whatever price necessary to save others. She has her chance to run, but chooses to stay and fight evil in the only way she knows how. Here’s hoping the film doesn’t begin a fad of pet skunks, but its message of compassion and courage is never out of place. The story runs from 1939 through 1946 and reminds us that heroes are amongst us always, and their journey can be both stressful and inspiring.

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THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT (2017)

March 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A story of romance smack dab in the middle of war is always a bit risky and sometimes difficult to sell. Make it a love triangle and toss in distinct religious differences, and if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till the mess gets here (a sentiment borrowed from the Coen Brothers).

This is director Joseph Ruben’s first feature since The Forgotten (2004), and he’s also known for Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), the breakout dramatic role for Julia Roberts after Pretty Woman. The film is written by Jeff Stockwell, who is best known for Bridge to Terabithia (2007), and the script leans heavily on melodrama while also sprinkling in some acts of war.

Hera Hilmar (who favors Abbie Cornish) stars as Lillie Rowe, a head-strong free-thinking nurse living a life of privilege in 1914 Philadelphia, but committed to an ideal of justice for all. She meets a handsome and equally idealistic Dr Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett) who is fundraising for his hospital located in the remote hills of Turkey. Circumstances are such that a Turkish officer is assigned to escort Lillie to Gresham’s hospital. As if enough sparks haven’t already flown between Jude and Lillie, it’s pretty clear that the attraction between her and Ismail (an excellent Michiel Huisman, “Game of Thrones”) is even stronger. The fourth key character here is Jude’s partner, Dr. Woodruff (Sir Ben Kingsley), whose immediate dislike of Lillie is quickly dispensed once she exhibits her medical competency.

Lillie is warned … war is coming. It’s WWI and it’s the Muslim Ottoman Empire vs the Christian Armenians. To label this revisionist history is an understatement. The 1915 Armenian Genocide is only alluded to with passing mention that the Ottomans “took steps” to control the Armenians. Even in such a lightweight and hokey melodrama, an omission like that jumps out. Whether it’s selective memory or outright propaganda, it seems obvious that the Turkish financiers were hoping to make a political/historical statement hidden behind a romantic triangle wrapped in war. The sweeping score by Geoff Zanelli and the beautiful cinematography of Daniel Aranyo both emphasize the romance aspects, while minimizing the fighting and cultural clashes.

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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.

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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.

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