May 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Taylor Sheridan was Oscar nominated for his screenplay of the superb HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016). He also wrote and directed WIND RIVER (2017), wrote the screenplays for both SICARIO movies, and is the creative force behind the TV series “Yellowstone”. He has excelled in generating slow-burn tension and conflict. For his latest film, he’s back in the director’s chair after co-writing the script with Charles Leavitt (BLOOD DIAMOND, 2006) and the 2014 novel’s author, Michael Koryta.

Oscar winner Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah, a thrill-seeking smokejumper (those folks who jump out of airplanes to fight fires and save lives) burdened with a faulty decision that cost lives in a massive forest fire the previous year. After flunking her psyche-evaluation, Hannah packs up the blame and her flashbacks and accepts her low-key assignment to the solitude of “Fire Tower”, a lookout perched above the tree line of Soda Butte, a park area within Yellowstone that encompasses the Continental Divide. Early on we see the camaraderie of the smokejumpers as they tease each other and “welcome” the new firefighters to the park.

In a seemingly unrelated storyline (although we know the intersection is coming), Owen (Jake Weber, “Medium”) and his son Connor (Finn Little) take an emergency detour on the way to school. Owen is a forensic accountant who uncovered some corruption while working for a Florida DA who was recently murdered by the same hitmen now chasing Owen and his son. Soon, Connor is wandering alone through the forest looking for someone he can trust, and up pops Hannah. The pair of calm-cool-collected hitmen are played by Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) and Nicholas Hoult (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015). They track down Owen’s brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Bernthal, BABY DRIVER, 2017), who happens to work for the sheriff’s department in the same park.

Whether you call it a hunt or a chase, it’s always a bit creepy when professional hitmen are tracking down an innocent kid, and the tension is elevated when we see the bad guys take their direction from a higher-up bad buy played by Tyler Perry in one brief scene. The film features a hand full of excellent action sequences, including a shootout between the hitmen and Ethan’s pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore). Conveniently, Allison runs a survivor camp, and despite her belly, manages to put up quite a fight.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, 2012) capitalizes on the extraordinary vastness and beauty of Soda Butte, and some of the forest fire effects are so good we can almost feel the heat. The supporting cast is excellent and the multiple story lines all work together nicely. For me, what prevented the film from reaching the level it could have, was the presence and performance of Angelina Jolie. Her last action movie was SALT in 2010, and here she seems too concerned with a look of glamor – right down to consistently brushed hair and perfect make-up – than fitting the profile of the courageous (and slightly off-center) smokejumpers. She stands out from the others on the team not because of her inherent extreme risk-taking, but rather because of her magazine-cover approach – something not limited to the hair and make-up, but also her posing and preening, including many of the same gazes from other movies like GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS (2000). I often admire and respect the choices actors make, but in this case, those choices work against everything else in what could have been an excellent dramatic thriller.

Now available on HBO Max


BY THE SEA (2015)

November 19, 2015

by the sea Greetings again from the darkness. As a devotee and lover of the cinematic art form, I tend to focus on the positive elements of films, and maintain a near reverent respect for filmmakers who engage in personal projects. Because of this, I typically avoid labels such as “bad” or “good” and instead focus on the experience. Unfortunately, this latest from writer/director Angelina Jolie (billed for the first time as Angelina Jolie Pitt) has delivered a prolonged experience of monotony and misery that can only be described as bad. Or awful. Or even beyond awful.

It’s based in the mid-1970’s and filmed on the island of Gozo in Malta. The setting is stunningly beautiful, and cinematographer Christian Berger captures the essence of this unique spot with naturalistic lighting and plenty of wide shots of the rocky beaches that provide the foundation for a classy and quaint inn run by Michel (Niels Arestrup, A Prophet). Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Angelina Jolie) are the epitome of an unhappily married couple … though they are stylishly dressed while driving their 1967 Citroen convertible.

He is a writer who doesn’t write and she is a former dancer who doesn’t dance. While he is not writing, Roland sucks down gin, beer and anything else Michel will serve him. Vanessa mostly hangs out in the room popping pills and watching a fisherman in a row boat. When they are together, they rarely speak except to ensure we viewers understand just how miserable they are … with a lousy reason that isn’t explained until late in the film. Mostly she bats her porn star fake eye lashes while he sports a porn star mustache.

A glimmer of hope emerges when a honeymooning couple takes the room next door. Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud) seem quite happy and enjoy spending time together in bed. We know this because Vanessa discovers a peephole where she can take in the sights. In what is probably the only interesting twist, Lea and Roland are soon sharing peeps … a step that somehow begins the process of rebuilding their relationship. Of course, that doesn’t happen without many more scenes of misery prior to the quite predictable finish.

Angelina is clearly paying tribute to the 1950’s and 1960’s French arthouse films, but having two unlikable lead characters who can’t stand to be in the same room never allows the viewers to connect … though she seizes many opportunities to show off her exquisitely rebuilt breasts. The film is entirely too long – and feels even longer – as it squanders a real chance to explore the second stage of marriage. The beautiful scenery and Gainsbourg songs don’t come close to making this a movie worth enduring.

watch the trailer:



DIFRET (2015)

October 23, 2015

difret Greetings again from the darkness. Maybe the best part of “based on a true story” movies is that they allow for a quick spotlight on both unheralded heroes and under-the-radar injustices around the globe. The first feature from writer/director Zeresenay Mehari brings warranted attention to the barbaric tradition of telefa in parts of rural Ethiopia. This so-called cultural rite involves a posse of men abducting a young girl whom one of them has chosen to be his wife.

Tizita Hagere plays Hirut, a 14 year old girl who is excelling in school and dreaming of attending university. While skipping home from school one day, Hirut is abducted by a group of men on horseback, who lock her away in a nearby house. Later she is visited by the man who wants to make her his wife. He beats and rapes her, leaving her to sleep injured on the dirt floor. The next day, Hirut tries to escape and ends up shooting her would-be husband. She is charged with murder, and it’s here that we come to understand the lack of civil rights or equality when it comes to measuring the worth of a man versus a woman in this community.

Hirut’s case comes to the attention of Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet), a partner in the Andinet Women Lawyers Association. She fights for the rights of women and girls in a society where few rights exist. It’s clear to any reasonable person that Hirut’s actions were in self-defense, but reasonableness is not the determining factor … in fact, the village elders hold a community meeting and hear from Hirut’s father and the father of the dead would-be husband. We are able to compare this form of village justice to the equally unbalanced scales of the courts.

The actual 1996 case of Aberash Bekale (on which this story is based) was a turning point in the legal system for Ethiopian women. This horrific process of abduction for marriage does still go on, but not in the mass numbers of the past. Of course, even once is too many. The film does a nice job of contrasting cultural versus civil laws, and how not all “traditions” should be continued simply because they are labeled as such.

Mr. Mehari’s film has done well on the festival circuit, and certainly is boosted by the presence of Executive Producer Angelina Jolie. It’s a real world example of just how important education and equality is, and how many of us take this for granted, while others live in areas where defiance could cost them their liberty and life.

watch the trailer:




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”.


January 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us are extremely under-informed on the details of the Bosnian War thanks to the cursory western media coverage, which was complimented by the mostly hands-off approach from the UN. This movie doesn’t shy away from exposing the atrocities of ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against women that occurred, but it does so through an intimate story rather than an epic tale of war.

This is no place for a history lesson, and I would certainly not be the one to supply it, but some basics are required to somewhat understand what’s going on. The reign of Yugoslavian President Tito lasted until his death in 1980. Although much criticism is directed his way, he was able to guide a society that allowed the co-existence of Bosniak Muslims and Orthodox Serbs. You might recall that in 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics. Not long after that, the republics began skirmishes that eventually escalated to a complicated civil war lasting from 1992-95 (The Bosnian War).

 The film focuses on two people: Danijel (Goran Kostic) and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic).  They are dancing cozily in a nightclub when a bomb shatters their date and their lives. Danijel goes on to become a mid-level military leader of the Serbs, while Ajla and her Muslim family and friends have their way of life ripped apart. Some are even executed. Ajla ends up as a prisoner at the camp Danijel commands. He manages to protect her from the brutal rapes (by soldiers) by staking a claim on her and putting the order out that she is not to be touched.

Ajla is an artist and Danijel is a soldier and their earlier dance evolves into their own personal war of wits, mistrust and psychological escape. Danijel is clearly not of the mindset to be a brutal killer within a war, yet Ajla constantly observes his every movement and interprets even the slightest change in his approach to her and the war. She does what she needs to survive and he uses her as an escape from the atrocities of his day job. The end result of this relationship is both shocking and inevitable.

 Danijel’s father, Nebojsa, is a senior level military leader who shows up in time to provide us with a brief history lesson dating back 600 years. He takes much pride in the Serbs ability to conquer and persevere. Nebojsa is played by Rade Serbedzija, whom many will recognize as the villain from The Saint (1997) and Boris the Blade in Snatch (2000). This is a powerful and frightening character, and we quickly understand why he doubts his son’s fortitude. The moment he finds out about Ajla, we are immediately hit with a feeling of dread for her.

After the screening, we were fortunate enough to have a discussion panel sponsored by the World Affairs Council. One of the panel members was a former officer in the Bosnian Army who spent time in two separate concentration camps. Viewing the film was very emotional for him and he said it captured the realities as well as a movie possibly could. Of course, we never lose sight of the fact that what we see on screen are not “real” bullets, not “real” rape, and not “real” blood.

 Most of us are aware of the humanitarian efforts of Angelina Jolie.  She brings that same caring perspective as a first time filmmaker (writer, director, producer), working diligently to tell a story that exposes the realities of war and how humanity can dissolve into horror. It’s not a perfect film (it runs a bit long), but it tells a powerful story that we may prefer to pretend never happened.   Just like the Bosnia and Herzegovina citizens, we can’t help but wonder what took NATO forces so long to get involved. Capped by an understated and haunting Gabriel Yared score, the film is a brutal reminder that war is the ultimate sacrifice and punishment for real people and real families.

note: don’t miss a quick cameo by Brad Pitt (I believe he knows the writer/director/producer pretty well)

note: The Turkish meaning of Balkans: “Bal” = Honey, “Kan” = Blood

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in learning more about the atrocities of war from the vantage of two people with little choice in their situation OR you would like to see the first step of a fine new filmmaker, Angelina Jolie.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you would just as soon avoid any more harsh realities of war and the subsequent loss of humanity

watch the trailer:


December 12, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ahh, beautiful people in beautiful places. That’s a good start! Throw in some amazing film blood lines: directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others), writers Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) and Jerome Salle. Salle wrote and directed the 2005 French film that this one is based on – Anthony Zimmer. The stellar cast is led by Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, and includes Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell and the always solid Steven Berkhoff. No way to mess this one up, right??

Somehow, despite all of that, the final product is a jumble of tired visual stunts, lame dialogue and a twist so obvious it might as well have been in the trailer. The aim was a thriller with involvement of mobsters, stolen millions, boat chases, rooftop shootings, crackling dialogue intertwined with dangerous settings and high fashion. The biggest failing is with the dialogue … so many wasted moments. The give and take between Depp and Jolie is just outright lame.

 Where is the payoff for sitting through the endless string of stupid moves from Scotland Yard inspectors? The police tail on Jolie’s character looked like something from the Pink Panther movies … only it is played straight! Same with the interactions between the two stars. How about some playful banter? Did Depp’s character need to be so dull? A math teacher from Wisconsin. Really? And poor Angelina. She is used as a flesh and blood Jessica from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. EVERYTHING about her is exaggerated! Yet, she still flashes her glances like her characters from Salt or any other action film she has upgraded over the years. The film just can’t decide what it is … thriller, farce, comedy?? It just doesn’t work here.

And I have to mention the absurdity of the chase scenes through the Venice canal. It’s not very often a boat chase scene is limited to 4 knots speed. How could the shooters miss time after time? At least we were treated to some stunning shots of Venice. That’s the only positive I can offer for this one.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: Three beautiful things is good enough (Angelina, Depp, Venice) OR you want to see the slowest boat chase scene in history

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you expect crackling dialogue OR you prefer your thrillers to actually have moments that thrill

SALT (2010)

July 25, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Remember the Alamo! Remember the Cold War! OK, the Alamo has nothing to do with this, but if you can remember Russia as a superpower and the bad guy whom the U.S. spent years and billions trying to out-spy and out-defend, then this story might makes some sense to you. Of course, the story matters little here. What matters is the action and it is actually high octane and quite fun.

Angelina Jolie has always reminded me of the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Strother Martin is testing out Sundance’s shooting skills. When he misses the first target, Sundance asks “Can I move?”. He then proves he is much better when he moves. Angelina is the same. In her films that let her “move”, she is amazing. Think Mr. and Mrs. Smith vs. Changeling. The first she seems a natural, the second she came across as miscast. In this film, she does things no human being could do, but does these things with such commitment, that we actually believe she is capable. Her actions often border on parkour … especially when in an elevator shaft or bounding from truck to truck on a freeway.  We accept these stunts because it’s Angelina.

Support work is provided by Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, both who spend much of the movie trying to figure out how Angelina does the things she does … surrounded by their teams of weapons experts. Most of the time, the way she is outnumbered leaves you thinking that if she gets out of this jam, this movie is just stupid. But once she has escaped, you just feel a little more pumped up! That’s a sign of a fun action movie.

Sure, the story is ridiculous at most points and the plot holes are more canyons than holes, but it’s kind of nice to re-visit the double or triple spy days, especially when placed within daring stunts and chases that work.

The director of this is Phillip Noyce, who is best known for a couple of the Tom Clancy adaptations – Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Mr. Noyce got me hooked 20 years ago on a little film called Dead Calm, starring a very young Nicole Kidman. That is a taut little thriller that takes place mostly on a sail boat in the middle of the ocean. If you’ve never seen it, you should.

So in regards to Salt, I will say that it’s a fun action-thriller in a twisty little cold war spy setting. Don’t get caught up in the plot details and just enjoy the action sequences by Angelina Jolie. Not very often I recommend ignoring a faulty script, but I actually enjoyed this one.