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:

 

 

 

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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”.


A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (2013)

February 20, 2013

a good Greetings again from the darkness. With only a few exceptions, comparing any sequel to its original is a bit unfair and usually somewhat disappointing. This is especially true with the Die Hard franchise. That initial entry in 1988 is often referred to as the top of the class in the action film genre. It combined stunning action sequences, breath-taking suspense, a world class villain, and a few characters to whom we could relate. Most notably, it introduced us to John McClane, a NYC cop making a trip to California in a last ditch effort to re-connect with his estranged wife and have Christmas with his kids. McClane, as played by Bruce Willis, was a likable guy with a touch of insecurity and a terrific stream of wise-cracks. Oh yeah, he also managed to run barefoot through broken glass while outsmarting a team of high-powered terrorists looking to steal millions.

Twenty-five years later, McClane (and Willis) is back for the fifth entry in the Die Hard franchise. Unfortunately, he is the only a good3piece that bears any resemblance to the original brilliance. The action is only stunning in its level of absurdity and exaggeration. The first car chase seemingly destroys at least a third of the existing vehicles in Moscow. It does so with film editing that is likely to spur nausea and migraines among viewers. Subsequent action scenes include numerous explosions and enough gunfire and violent falls to kill off McClane and his son (Jai Courtney) at least a dozen times. Chernobyl makes for an interesting connection to the past, but falls flat in the end. Speaking of falling, McClane and Junior somehow manage to avoid paralysis or even broken ribs despite numerous falls and jumps that are just plain laughable.

a good2 The only “breathtaking” suspense offered was an obvious twist among characters we can’t name with baggage we aren’t privy to. The only other significant breath was my exaggerated sighs of frustration. As for the villain, I couldn’t remember his name during the movie and we are never let in on the big secret file … only that it contains some bad stuff on important Russian big guys. This particular bad guy chomps on a carrot while performing a goofy little dance … all while threatening to kill McClane and his son. Guess what happens? You’re right … McClane doesn’t die.  We know this because Die Hard 6 was announced a week before this one opened.

Relating to these characters is impossible. McClane has some lame parent-regrets that don’t come across as sincere. His son is such a highly trained CIA operative that we aren’t sure what to make of him. We know he botched his mission and apparently it was because he stopped to yell at his dad for the ill-timed visit. The Russian that Junior is supposedly rescuing is bland, though he has a good4a lovely daughter … but even she is saddled with truly awful dialogue. The only fun character in the movie is the Russian cabbie played by Pasha Lychnikoff. He sings Sinatra with a smile, even if he actually never drives the cab thanks to the traffic.

It’s been a rough year for action icons Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Statham and now Bruce Willis. Maybe the action genre has been muted due to the terrific action sequences of the recent Batman and James Bond movies … each of which offer interesting stories to go with endorphins rush action . The first Die Hard had a great story and fun dialogue. Now McClane spends much of the time telling people “I’m on vacation“. When it’s not funny the first time, each successive time is just exasperating. That’s not acceptable writing and this isn’t acceptable movie directing. Director John Moore is also responsible for The Omen (remake) and Max Payne, while writer Skip Woods gave us Swordfish and The A-Team. There have to be more talented filmmakers who deserve a shot.

**NOTE: I did not like this movie

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: and only if, you are OCD and must keep your streak of Die Hard movies going

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: at all possible

watch the really good trailer (it’s much better than the movie):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riIaTrjyGZ4

 

 


JACK REACHER (2012)

December 22, 2012

jack Greetings again from the darkness. Lee Child has written 17 Jack Reacher books since 1997, and it’s a bit surprising that it took Hollywood this long to latch on to this enigmatic lone wolf drifter who doesn’t so much care about laws as he does right and wrong. Fans of the books were outraged when it was announced Tom Cruise would play the 6’5 hulking Reacher, as much of the character’s appeal stems from his ability to physically dominate a situation while using very few words.

Unfortunately I can’t ease the minds of those fans of the pulpy series, but rather to encourage them to give this a shot. Author Child was probably ecstatic when Mr. Cruise took an interest in the character, despite the obvious conflicts. Very few actors can command screen presence like Cruise, especially in action sequences. That’s where this gets a bit jack2dicey. This is not an action movie. It’s an investigative mystery thriller that includes 3-4 action sequences.

The film has a real 1970’s feel to it along the lines of Billy Jack or Walking Tall mixed with Dirty Harry and numerous westerns with strong, silent types, and of course, the timeless pulpy detective stories. See, Reacher is a former military investigator with a mind that is always a step or two ahead of everyone else. He looks at the obvious evidence and immediately notes a list of doubts where none previously existed.  So, he is smarter than you.  He can fight better than you.  And he is travels much lighter than you.

jack4 A seemingly random sniper attack is a bold way to begin a movie given recent real-life events, but the opening sequence is executed with methodical precision and daring so that we can quickly believe in Reacher’s conspiracy theories. In the blink of an eye, Reacher has appeared out of nowhere (his usual address) and is in the middle of the investigation being conducted by the lawyer of the wrongly accused James Barr (Joseph Sikora). The defense lawyer is played by Rosamund Pike, whose character is the daughter of the District Attorney (Richard Jenkins). The police detective is played by David Oyelowo and it’s easy to tell something isn’t completely right within the walls of city hall.

Reacher roams the beautiful city of Pittsburgh asking questions and piecing together the puzzle left behind by creepy villain The Zec (Werner Herzog) and his henchman Charlie (Jai Courtney). We get three Reacher fistfights, a Bullit type car chase in a muscle-bound 1970 Chevelle, and some military sharp-shooting from the depths of a quarry. What we don’t get is the Hollywood jack5tradition of a Cruise sprint. Not once do we see his trademark all-out dash to or from something. In fact, his attempt at moving like a larger man often reminded me of his Stacee Jaxx strut from the recent musical Rock of Ages.

Director Christopher McQuarrie won an Oscar, and my ever-lasting respect, for his The Usual Suspects screenplay. This story is infinitely less-complicated, but it does offer some fun moments thanks to the Reacher character. Maybe things would be a little better if a guy like Reacher really existed … totally off the grid and taking down the bad guys that the cops can’t quite catch. Sounds a bit like “Dexter”, only Reacher’s code includes doling out physical pain and then moving on to the next town … with a new set of Goodwill duds and a fresh toothbrush.

Caleb Deschanel (Director of Photography) provides a really sharp look to the film and, thankfully, doesn’t cheat on the action scenes. Herzog (a highly respected director) has a great look for a bad guy, but is painfully under-utilized here. Rosamund Pike jack3may simply be my least favorite actress working today. Bug eyes and long legs do not an actress make.  Even Reacher had little “interest” in her. Robert DuVall makes a colorful appearance as the late-arriving character that breaks open the case, and he seems to relish the reunion with his Days of Thunder co-star. The most interesting character and actor to me was Jai Courtney (pictured, left), who will be seen next as Bruce Willis’ son in A Good Day to Die Hard.

If you haven’t read the Lee Child books, you will probably readily accept Cruise as Reacher. If you are a fan of the franchise, your eyes and brain will have massive conflicts for the first hour, but then acceptance creeps in, and you’ll probably agree that it’s a simple, effective piece of entertainment … far superior to most Nicolas Cage movies these days!

**NOTE: don’t miss Lee Child as the policeman who releasaes Reacher’s personal items back to him.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of investigative thrillers that are sprinkled with actions scenes and car chases OR you just want to see and hear a very cool ’70 Chevelle

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are such a devoted fan of Lee Child’s books that you refuse to accept the 5″7 Tom Cruise as the 6’5 Jack Reacher OR like me, you hope the kidnappers had struck much earlier on Rosamund Pike’s character.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kK7y8Ou0VvM