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:

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7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE (2018)

March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Freedom fighters or terrorists? Which label gets applied is often dependent upon one’s point of view. In 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens was hijacked. Director Jose Padilha (“Narcos”, ROBOCOP, 2014) brings us the big screen version of Gregory Burke’s (’71) screenplay.

The 7 day ordeal bounces between the captors and hostages at the abandoned terminal in Uganda and the political maneuverings of the Israeli government officials as they deliberate whether to break with policy and negotiate with terrorists. There are also flashbacks to the planning stages with the hijackers, in an attempt to help us understand their perspective.

Daniel Bruhl plays Wilifried Bose and Rosamund Pike plays Brigitte Kuhlmann. These are the two main hijackers who get most of our attention. Mr. Bruhl seems destined to always play the ultra-serious character, and Ms. Pike is once again miscast … something that happens whenever she is cast. Although she seems to throw down her best Patty Hearst look, we never really buy these two as committed to the cause, which prevents the necessary build-up of suspense.

The film’s biggest flaw is not capitalizing on the opportunity afforded by Nonso Anozie’s Idi Amin Dada, and even more disappointing is the abbreviated scenes between Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) and Yizhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi, FOXTROT). The two actors excel in their head-to-head confrontations, but we feel cheated every time it cuts away.

Once a strategy is formed, we are introduced to the Special Ops team (IDF). They only have a day or two to train and rehearse, and one of the key players is Ben Schnetzer (THE BOOK THIEF, 2013). He and his girlfriend quarrel over his duty, which keeps him away from her dancing performance with Batsheva Dance Company.  As Operation Thunderbolt proceeds, the crosscuts between Special Ops training and the dance rehearsals are setting the stage for the film’s climax.

So the hijackers never really generate the feeling of danger, the government deliberations are cut short, and the filmmaker takes a huge creative risk by synchronizing the final rescue mission with the opening night dance performance. The film is negatively impacted by poor pacing, an overall lack of tension for such a terrifying historical event, and questionable, albeit creative, story-telling structure. It does serve the purpose of educating those unfamiliar with the story, and it’s a reminder that even 4 decades later, the Israeli – Palestinian hostilities continue. As a special note of interest, the only Special Ops member killed in the raid was Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of the current Prime Minister of Israel.

watch the trailer:


HOSTILES (2017)

January 2, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker is influenced by one of the all-time classics, that filmmaker best deliver a movie that not only stands up to inevitable comparisons, but also one that has its own identity, playing as more than a copy. Writer/director Scott Cooper (from a manuscript by the late Oscar winner Donald E Stewart) succeeds on both counts even as he tips his Stetson to John Ford’s western classic THE SEARCHERS.

If you are familiar with Mr. Cooper’s CRAZY HEART and OUT OF THE FURNACE, then you know his style is never hurried, and to expect minimal dialogue. You might think of him as the anti-Aaron Sorkin. Cooper’s characters tend to only say what must be said, and prefer to communicate through subtle gestures and actions that define their character. In this latest, he re-teams with Oscar winner Christian Bale, who plays the quietly simmering Captain Blocker. It’s 1892, and the legendary Army officer/soldier/guide is ordered to escort a Cheyenne Chief and his family through dangerous and unchartered New Mexico territory, so that the Chief may die in peace in his native Valley of the Bears, Montana. During a career of brutal warfare against the Native Americans, Captain Blocker has developed a deep-seeded hatred, and only accepts the assignment after his pension is threatened.

The opening sequence immediately immerses us in the constant danger faced during this era. Rosamund Pike watches as her homesteading family is brutally slaughtered by Comanche warriors. She survives only by escaping into the woods, although it’s a bit of stretch to believe that this homemaker marm could outwit the Comanches. Circumstances find Ms. Pike’s traumatized character (the actress’s go-to wide-eyed look) joining and complicating Captain Blocker’s convoy.

Wes Studi plays Chief Yellow Hawk, and the film’s only weakness is in his not having a more substantive role, as we are teased a couple of times with nuanced exchanges between he and Bales’ Blocker. The stellar supporting cast includes Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Timothy Chalamet, Adam Beach, Peter Mullan, and Scott Wilson. Ben Foster also appears as an Army soldier accused of murder … another addition to the convoy, as he is to be escorted to prison.

The somber film follows this traveling party as they move slowly and methodically across the open plains and wilderness. There are no moments of levity, as death and danger are constantly hovering. No real reason for optimism exists, and surviving the day is the only goal. Despite the appearance of little happening, there is much going on here for the characters and in commentary on the times. At its core, the story is about Blocker’s reclamation of his soul and humanity; although redemption may not be possible as he recalls Julius Caesar and getting used to killing, but not to losing men.

Political correctness is avoided in many scenes, though the message is clear that the hatred between the Native Americans and the mostly Anglo settlers and soldiers stems from the unethical seizure of land by violent force. Amends are not possible even with a change of heart. It’s in these moments where we desire a more in-depth look at the various native factions.

Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi works with some amazing vistas, landscapes and rock formations. He deftly balances the breathtaking beauty of the land with the intimacy of the mission. There is a relentless undercurrent of simmering emotion throughout the film, much of which comes courtesy of Christian Bale. Sporting a mustache to rival Poirot, Bale is remarkably adept at silently expressing disgust, rage, resolve and resignation. His groans and grunts convey as much as soliloquies for many actors. While he feels remorse and seeks redemption, we are left with the not-especially-upbeat message that we are what we are.

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A UNITED KINGDOM (2017)

February 23, 2017

a-united-kingdom Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes I just know immediately that I’m going to be out of touch with popular opinion on a movie, and this historical-romantic-biopic from director Amma Asante (Belle) and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) is one of those times.

It’s a crowd-pleaser featuring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in a real life story with some similarities to last year’s Loving (the chronicle of Richard and Mildred Loving’s interracial marriage). Mr. Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, a 1947 university student in London when we first meet him. Ms. Pike is Ruth Williams, a local Londoner working clerical at an insurance company when the two meet at a local dance. The attraction is immediate.

Not long after, Seretse discloses to Ruth that not only is he in love with her, but he’s also the King-in-waiting for Bechuanaland in Africa. The marriage is met with dissent from all fronts: family (racism), Seretse’s people (cultural and societal reasons), and Great Britain (mostly concerned with appeasing its ally South Africa and the growing notion of Apartheid). Seretse and Ruth believe their true love is strong enough to win over those dissenters. The backlash is much worse than anticipated.

A very cool element with the film is the use of the actual house Ruth and Seretse lived in, and the locals were more than willing to contribute. While the strength of these two individuals remains inspirational to this day, the film falters in a few ways. Both Jack Davenport and Tom Felton are stuck playing British foils in the overwritten manner in which we would expect from a 1940’s movie on TCM. Again acknowledging my out of step opinion, Ms. Pike simply lacks the range for such a role. Her deer-in-the-headlights go-to facial expression is a slap to the courageous woman she is portraying. However, the biggest issue with the film is its lack of continuity … its choppiness, if you will. So many scenes abruptly end right as the substance is beginning. Multiple times we are left hanging, wondering why we don’t get to finish a conversation or finalize a conflict. There are some terrific moments that are torn apart by the numerous butchered scenes, though the strong performances of Oyelowo and Terry Pheto (Tsotsi) as his sister shine through.

This is a terrific and interesting piece of history that deserved a better film. In 1966, Bechuanaland gained its independence and became what’s known today as Botswana, and the story of Seretse and Ruth is one that needs to be told. Most viewers likely won’t be bothered by the things that irritated me, and that’s probably a good thing.

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HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS (2014)

October 8, 2014

hector Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t you feel sorry for the smart, rich doctor with the beautiful and successful wife, luxury apartment and appointment book full of patients?  What about when he loudly humiliates one of those patients for expressing her feelings? We are supposed to want Hector to be happy. But do we? Personally, I didn’t give a rip about Hector.

Based on the novel by Francois Lelord, the movie stars Simon Pegg as Hector, a psychiatrist bored with the every day rituals he has set up for himself. A rare two minutes of soul-searching leads Hector to pause his life and embark on a mission to discover the true meaning of happiness. See, Hector believes he can no longer help his patients until he helps himself. My take is that Hector can’t help his patients because he isn’t even trying … he is a narcissist and a jerk who can’t appreciate the moments that make life grand. My disgust towards people like Hector made his journey much less entertaining and enlightening than if the character were someone I cared for.

If all that weren’t bad enough, the first person Hector meets on his trip is an obnoxious business man (Stellan Skarsgard) whose key feature is that he is much richer than Hector. The two grown men tour Shanghai and the night is capped with the gift of a prostitute with a heart. This is no spoiler because Hector is the only one who doesn’t know she is a prostitute. After this, he hangs out with Tibetan monks and sets up their Skype (so he can use it).

Along the way, Hector’s OCD traits cause him to maintain a journal filled with self-help one-liners and funny drawings of his sights. His spontaneous travel itinerary and endless budget take him next to “Africa” – quotations for the generic and clichéd approach the film provides. When Hector is imprisoned by rebels, there was glimmer of hope for the movie, but soon enough, a previous favor for a drug lord (Jean Reno) pays dividends.

Somehow the movie has less insight than the similarly themed EAT PRAY LOVE, and certainly less creativity than The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Hector’s approach even blatantly borrows from the “Tintin” stories, and makes no apology for doing so. The only moment with any emotional depth comes when Toni Collette lashes out with armchair psychology and tells Hector exactly what he is. In all fairness, the movie is directed by Peter Chelsom, who also directed Hannah Montana: The Movie, so perhaps any expectations were too high.

Despite all of the short-comings, I will always pay admission if a movie includes a 3 minute monologue from the great Christopher Plummer, an especially welcome sight here. Simon Pegg, though an incredibly gifted comic actor, is over the top miscast here. His persona is distracting to the point that we never once believe he could be a psychiatrist or that Rosamund Pike would find him appealing. But the single biggest obstacle is that an audience finds it difficult to root for a narcissistic protagonist who believes that there must be some magic potion for happiness … maybe sweet potato stew.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always root for the spoiled, rich guy to win in his battle against a mid-life crisis

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your local cinema has a rule against throwing items at the screen during especially annoying parts

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GONE GIRL (2014)

October 5, 2014

gone girl Greetings again from the darkness. One of the benefits of seeing so many movies is the ability to readily ascertain whether the appeal is to specific movie-goers (teens, romantics, et al), to mass audiences, or perhaps only to film critics and cinephiles. The downside is that when one of the rare mass appeal thrillers hits theatres, my enjoyment of the twists and surprises tends to suffer. Such is the case with director David Fincher‘s version of Gillian Flynn‘s best-selling novel.

Whether or not you are a devotee of Ms. Flynn’s novel, you are likely to find guilty pleasure in this pulpy, neo-noir thriller featuring Ben Affleck as the man who may or may not have killed his missing wife (Rosamund Pike). This is less “whodunit” and more “did he do it?”, at least for the first half. When Nick (Affleck) returns home to discover his wife (Pike) is missing, we hear Amy’s voice guiding us through her journal as we go from blossoming romance to crumbling marriage. Nick’s perspective is derived from his work with the detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) and conversations with his sister (Carrie Coon).

This story-telling structure is beautifully executed, and when combined with director Fincher’s fascination with the dark side of people (The Social Network, Zodiac, Se7en, Fight Club), and the terrific camera work and lighting, we witness elevated   technical filmmaking. Watch how Fincher uses lighting and shadows to change the tone of the film as the noose tightens on Affleck’s character.

Much has been made of the critically acclaimed performances of Affleck and Pike, so I’d prefer to focus on a couple of others. Carrie Coon steals every scene as Nick’s twin sister Margot. She is the moral compass of the film, and gives the absolute best performance. Kim Dickens provides the necessary screen presence and wry humor to prevent the stereotypical detective role from emerging. This is a real person working a complicated case. Also of note is Missi Pyle‘s obnoxious Nancy Grace style TV reporter clearly attempting to build ratings by guiding the sheep (everything we hate about the media, but continues to draw big ratings). Lastly, and most surprising, Tyler Perry‘s slick and slimy headline-grabbing defense attorney provides a punch when the film needs it.

The second half of the film transitions from mystery to anatomy of a scheme, and features one of the most brutal and bloody on screen murders you will ever see. It also provides more excellent support work from Lola Kirke and Brad Holbrook as a couple of trailer park opportunists, and Scoot McNairy and Neil Patrick Harris (against type) as Amy’s former lovers.

The wicked fun in this movie is derived mostly from the misdirection and personalities of Nick and Amy. It’s nice to see a female lead character with some real scene-chewing, even though I believe many actresses would have been better picks. When I hear talk that it could be best movie of the year, I certainly hope that’s off base. This one is at the level of other mainstream thrillers such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, and it’s not difficult to imagine Michael Douglas in the lead, were this 1988. Adding to the fun is the satire and social commentary … especially on the current trend of media speculation in place or reporting. So enjoy the twists and ask yourself just how much you really know about your spouse.

***NOTE: for those who read the book, this would be considered a faithful adaptation … unlike some of the early rumors led us to believe

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you enjoy your thrillers with a dose of social commentary OR you want a glimpse of the new Batman body in progress.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  an exceptionally gruesome and bloody murder scene is something you prefer to avoid

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE WORLD’S END (2013)

September 7, 2013

worlds end Greetings again from the darkness. This is the third in the unofficial Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, and my guess is if you know that, you have already seen this one. Director Edgar Wright has previously delivered is parody of Zombies (Shaun of the Dead), his parody of buddy-cop-action films (Hot Fuzz), and now takes on Sci-Fi in this latest … a worthy conclusion with the trademark quick cuts and rapid fire witty/silly dialogue.

I love the premise of this one. 5 buddies reluctantly reunite after 20 years to try and finish what they failed to in their youth: 12 pubs/12 pints … an epic pub crawl. It touches on the male transition to middle-age and also reinforces the old saying ‘you can’t go home again’. Simon Pegg (also co-writer with Wright) stars as Gary King, a recovering addict who is quite simply struggling with adulthood. His manic energy reunites the boys and carries the early movie. Nick Frost really shines here and takes on a different persona from the previous two movies.

worlds end2 As I have stated many times, comedies are the most difficult genre to review as everyone’s sense of humor varies. What I can report is that I laughed quite a bit at the dialogue, but didn’t have much love for the sci-fi portions, despite some similarities to Westworld and The Stepford Wives. Oh, and Rosamund Pike reminded me again why I am no fan of hers (yes, I realize I’m in the minority).

Hardcore Wright fans will enjoy the steady stream of regular faces, and yes, we do get the expected failed fence jump. This one won’t stick with me for long, but I appreciated the laughs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Simon Pegg – Nick Frost – Edgar Wright offbeat British parody films. It’s one of their best

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your comedy tastes lean toward the conventional … a territory Edgar Wright avoids at all costs

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n__1Y-N5tQk