A PRIVATE WAR (2018)

November 10, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Marie Colvin was a (seemingly) fearless war correspondent obsessed with giving a voice to those forgotten during war. Were she alive today, she could not have hand-picked a better filmmaker than Matthew Heineman to tell her story. Director Heineman was Oscar nominated for CARTEL LAND (2014) and, combined with his CITY OF GHOSTS (2017), gives him two of the best ever documentaries that show what the front lines are like in both international wars and the equally dangerous wars being fought over drug territories. Heineman has carried his own camera directly into the center of those storms, while Ms. Colvin took her pen and pad. Simpatico.

Based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” (screenplay by Arash Amel), the film benefits from the extraordinary and courageous work of Ms. Colvin, and also a terrific performance from Rosamund Pike (words I’ve not previously written). Ms. Pike captures the extremes of Ms. Colvin’s life – the atrocities of war and the self-prescribed treatment of her PTSD through vodka, and does so in a manner that always seems believable. She lets us in to a world most of us can’t imagine.

As a war correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times (since 1986), Ms. Colvin told the stories we’d rather not know. In her words, “I saw it, so you don’t have to.” The film begins with a stunning overhead view of 2012 war-ravaged Homs Syria (destruction courtesy of Assad’s soldiers) – a place that starts the film and later ends the story. We then flash back to 2001 London so we can witness Marie in society and struggling with a personal relationship. She then chooses, against her editor’s (Tom Hollander) guidance to cover Sri Lanka. It’s a decision that cost her an eye, while also providing her recognition as the eye-patch wearing female war reporter.

In 2003, a tip takes her to a previously undiscovered mass grave site in Fallujah. This is her first work alongside photographer Paul Conroy (played by Jamie Dornan). Having “seen more war than most soldiers”, Ms. Colvin’s severe alcoholism can’t kill the nightmares, visions, and PTSD. After time in a clinic, she returns to work. We see her in 2009 Afghanistan and then pulling no punches when interviewing Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. During these assignments, we learn much about Ms. Colvin’s personality and approach. She is rarely without a cigarette, admits to wearing Le Perla lingerie (and why), carries Martha Gellhorn’s “The Face of War” as her field manual, and wins two British Foreign Journalist of the Year awards – though seeing her at the banquets is quite surreal.

Hollander’s subtle performance as news editor Sean Ryan is also quite impressive. He fears for her safety (and even questions her sanity) but is in constant conflict with the need to sell newspapers – something Ms. Colvin’s stories certainly did. Stanley Tucci has a role as Tony Shaw, her love interest, but despite her words, we never believe he and his sailboat are ever more than a distraction from her obsession with the front lines. The final sequence in 2012 Homs Syria is stunning, as is her final interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN.

Ms. Pike has altered her voice to mimic the deeper tone of Marie Colvin – her efforts confirmed in the final interview played at the film’s end. It’s quite a career boost for Ms. Pike, who has previously been known for playing ice queens in films like GONE GIRL. She captures the traumatized Marie, but also the obsession of someone whose DNA constantly drove her back to the stories that needed to be told.

Director Heineman’s unique perspective combined with the cinematography of 3 time Oscar winner Robert Richardson (a favorite of Scorcese, Tarantino, and Oliver Stone) delivers a realism of war that we rarely see on screen. Mr. Richardson also shot SALVADOR (1986) and PLATOON (1986) and his work here surpasses both. The film gives us a glimpse at the psychological effects of such reporting, and a feel for the constant stress of being surrounded by tragedy and danger. This is fitting tribute to a courageous and very skilled woman, although I do wish the men weren’t constantly helping her out of trucks and jeeps.

watch the trailer:


CITY OF GHOSTS (2017, doc)

July 9, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated director Matthew Heineman delivered the stunning documentary Cartel Land in 2015, and here he once again proves his expertise as the messenger of important (and dangerous) stories that need to be told.

The film begins in the Syrian city of Ragga in 2012, and we see the beginning of the revolution against the Assad regime. The sayings “Death is Death” and “Danger has a special taste” come into play, and by the end of the film, there is a clarity that is devastating.

The courageous and dedicated Citizen Journalists are divided into two groups: the internal who risk their lives in Ragga uploading news stories and videos of ISIS actions and, the external who are based in Turkey and Germany and post regularly to social media outlets. Both groups live vagabond lives – always on the move in an effort to avoid capture. Their combined efforts and risk taking allow the real story to be told from their home city mostly cut-off from the outside world – as evidenced by the satellite graveyard.

Some quite graphic and violent video clips are used to bring poignancy and meaning to the words spoken by the brave individuals (rebels in the best sense) being interviewed. The clips are also in contrast to the quietly dignified, yet urgent approach they take in reporting developments.

RBSS (Ragga is Being Silently Slaughtered) is the movement spreading the truth about ISIS atrocities – including public beheadings, shootings, and bombings. It’s a terrifying story, never more so than during the professionally produced recruiting ISIS videos featuring young children. These courageous folks have had friends, family and neighbors slaughtered which inspires them to continue fighting the guns and bombs with the power of words. It’s breathtaking.

watch the trailer:


DIFF 2015 – Day 3

April 13, 2015

 

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 3 – Sunday April 12

Below is a recap of films I watched on Day 3:

 

CARTEL LAND (2015, doc)

cartel land Greetings again from the darkness. Even in this digital age where information exists from all sides of a conflict … often with corresponding video, the general public somehow remains complacent to issues that don’t directly and obviously affect their lifestyle. Skilled documentarian Matthew Heineman ignores the rhetoric of political speeches and plops the war against drug cartels right into our lap.

This is a different approach to a topic with which we are all at least somewhat familiar. The involved parties include the affected communities (in Mexico and Arizona), the governments and affiliated agencies (DEA, Border Patrol), the ever-expanding vigilante groups of citizens (Arizona Border Recon, AutoDefensas), and of course the cartels (focus on Knights Templar).

Intimacy is the key here, as Mr. Heineman takes us inside these groups with an up-close look at leaders. Especially fascinating is Dr. Mireles who is the face of the AutoDefensas – a group he pledges will protect communities from the cartels, who clearly have no regard for human life. The film doesn’t shy away from the expected issues: citizen pushback, greed, abuse of power, and corruption. As AutoDefensas teams with the Mexican government to create the Rural Defense Force, we can’t help but wonder if the rumors of differing goals are at play in the drug battles. Citizens want safety, but what is it that the government wants? Is the goal drug-free streets or is it a cut of the action.

Learning how desperate the vigilantes are to protect their homes, turf and way of life, we are left with little doubt of their mission. It’s everyone else that we must keep questioning and holding accountable. This is not an easy documentary to watch, but it’s necessary if you have previously lost interest as the next politician proclaims he will continue “the war on drugs”.

ASCO (2015)

Greetings again from the darkness. A broken heart is one of most powerful triggers of human emotion. Clarity of thought is often lacking during this period, and mental images explode as a rational reaction is rarely able to break through the swirling alternatives.

Brazilian writer/director Alexandre Paschoalini presents the story of broken-hearted Ela (Sol Faganello) in expressionistic hyper-kinetic Black and White mode. After Ele (Guto Nogueira) crushes his emotions and attempt at connection, he begins a psychotic mission with the goal of causing her to feel the same pain that her actions brought to him.

Many of Ela’s actions are outside the boundaries of the law, but he will not be deterred. Ele’s shock of white hair adds a visual that perfectly contrasts with Ela’s dark and brooding features and moods. White hat vs Black hat – only no one told the white hat that she was in a demented duel.

With almost no dialogue, the story is told through both stark and outlandish visuals, and is often accompanied by music that harkens to 1960’s era rock music. A masked woman and a faceless man ensure that we understand just how removed from rational thought that Ela has become. It’s quite a build up with a startling climax that features a terrific last line … explaining all.

LADYGREY (2015)

Greetings again from the darkness. Alain Choquart has had a long and successful career as a top cinematographer, and though this is his first feature film as director, his eye with a camera is obvious in just how beautifully this film is shot.

Filmed and set in post-apartheid South Africa, this little village has an undercurrent of secrecy and misery. We realize that some tragic event has engulfed the citizens with a bleak perspective, and each day seems pretty much as dark as the last. Slow-witted Mattis (Jeremie Renier) brings tremendous energy and spirit to an otherwise downbeat environment. Sadly Mattis fluctuates between ecstasy, frustration and outright anger … each shift seemingly occurring over the smallest detail.

The synergy between characters played by Liam Cunningham, Emily Mortimer, Peter Sarsgaard and Sibongile Mlambo is so uncomfortable that we never know what form the next round of broken trust will take. These are not happy people and none of the relationships even border on healthy.

The beautiful Green River plays a vital role in the story, both as a carrier of secrets and a vision of hope, and the torrential rain storms tend to bring about the next infusion of misery. The excellent cast does their best to overcome a lacking script, but mostly the film is more enjoyable to look at than actually watch.