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.

watch the trailer:

 

 


SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ (2016)

June 23, 2016

septembers of shiraz Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1979 in Tehran, and the Shah of Iran has recently been overthrown in favor of Ayatollah Khomeini and the shift to fundamentalist Islam. Director Wayne Blair informs us that the Hanna Weg script from Dalia Sofer’s bestselling novel is “based on true events”. As soon as we realize the story is about a wealthy Jewish family, we are prepared for the sure to be unpleasantness.

Adrien Brody plays Isaac, a self-made man whose jewelry business has profited through his dealings with the previous regime. His wife Farnez is played by Salma Hayek, and their beautiful home is the setting for the going-away party for their son who is headed to the United States to continue his education, leaving behind his parents and younger sister.

Ignoring his own warnings that things are getting bad, Isaac is soon arrested by the Revolutionary Guard. As Farnez tries to see him, while also keeping things together at home, Isaac is being interrogated and later tortured as he is held captive.

As in many revolutions, it comes down to rich versus poor, and those who had power versus those who now wield the big stick. Isaac and Farnez are presented as good people who have helped others … including their housekeeper played by the always interesting Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog). Her loyalties begin to waver even as her son joins forces with the Guards. Why should she clean toilets while Farnez lives the high life? The scenes with Ms. Hayek and Ms. Aghdashloo are the film’s best, but even those aren’t strong enough given the material.

The film tries to maintain a neutral stance on religion and politics, though it’s clear where the sympathies fall. The ending dedication to “all victims of persecution” gives some idea of the lack of focus here. The over-acting from Adrian Brody does distract some from the manner in which the story ends. The lesson seems to be that one is never free when focused on material things, and yet revolutions always seem to be about the power that comes with money … rather than the issues initially proclaimed. In book form, this is a terrific and personal story about the impact of the revolution. Unfortunately, on the screen, it comes across as all too familiar and lacking in danger and suspense … none of which lessens the true hardships faced by this family.

watch the trailer:

 


LAST KNIGHTS (2015)

March 31, 2015

last knights Greetings again from the darkness. Medieval action films seem to be hit and miss. The best have complex sub-plots and power struggles punctuated with large scale sword-fight sequences, while the lesser films typically offer little more than clanking sound effects and faux castle settings. (Of course this is discounting the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail)  Falling somewhere in-between is this latest from director Kazuaki Kiriya (Goeman, 2009). For whatever reason, the massive sets and timely costumes don’t make up for the slow pace and scarce action sequences.

The cast is very strong and includes Clive Owen, Cliff Curtis, Morgan Freeman, Axsel Hennie, Shohreh Aghdashlo, Peyman Moaddi, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Sung-Kee Ahn, Noah Silver and Ayelet Zurer. Mr. Freeman narrates a slightly confusing opening that sets the stage for a multi-racial time period that is generically referred to after the “great wars”. We soon enough learn that Freeman’s Lord Bartok is one of the good guys under the Emperor’s (Moaadi) reign of extortion being carried out by the weasely Minister Gezza Mott (Hennie). Refusing to kowtow to Gezza’s game, Bartok is disgraced and, umm … relieved of his duties – in a manner befitting the period. Bartok’s loyal Commander Raiden (Owen) and the other followers are cast out of their homes.

Watching Owen fall into a drunken slumber oblivious to society goes against all instincts we have for the noble warrior who is so dedicated to “The Code”, but it is the most fun offered by the film outside of the two main fight sequences. Mr. Owen and his constantly furrowed brow seem a bit too high class for this film, only because everything else should be stamped with the “Acme” logo made so popular by Wile E Coyote. Despite the best efforts of the cast, the story lacks real emotion and the spectacularly elaborate plan for revenge is not given the attention it deserves … although I so was hoping someone would scream “Have fun storming the castle, boys!”

The opening fight scene is well staged and leaves us wanting more, but the wait is well over an hour … screen time filled with bleak, gray scenes of not much happening. Gezza Mott’s lead henchman (Ihara) does get a very spirited duel with Raiden, but the final showdown between Raiden and Mott is a significant letdown and a minor payoff for remaining hopeful through two hours.

Reclaiming the honor of one’s mentor may be a worthy cause, but the guts of the story are skimmed over and the quick cut explanations remind of the strategy used in Ocean’s Eleven since the filmmakers believe movie watchers could never keep up with the actual details of strategy. So follow the code if you must, just know that a generic story and setting cannot be salvaged by stellar swordplay from Clive Owen.

watch the trailer:

 

 


ROSEWATER (2014)

November 14, 2014

Rosewater Greetings again from the darkness. A surefire method to get attention for a movie is “the feature film directorial debut of Jon Stewart”. The popular comedian/commentator/talk show host makes an exceptional living getting people to laugh and think, so a politically charged story based on real life events should be right in his proverbial wheelhouse. Mix in the fact that Stewart and his show are linked to those events, and now you have some real intrigue.

Maziar Bahari was a Newsweek political correspondent sent to cover the 2009 Presidential election in Iran. His experience led him to write the book “Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival”, on which the film is based. Bahari was a young husband who left his pregnant wife at home for what he thought would be an assignment lasting but a few days. Instead, by the time he returned home, he had been held captive in Evin Prison for 118 days – suspected of being a foreign spy, and incessantly interrogated and subjected to psychological and physical torture.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Bahari with a naïve and amiable spirit that contrasts sharply with what we might envision as the traits necessary for success in his line of work. It does work well to allow the viewer a quick connection with the character as we later pull for him during the toughest moments. The film brings light to the importance of a free press, and the dangers inherent otherwise. As the Iranian government accuses Bahari of being a spy, it’s easy for us to understand the blurred line between spy and journalist. Those with the most to hide are often the most paranoid.

When Bahari first arrives in Iran, happenstance leads him to cross paths with a taxi driver who enthusiastically introduces him to the “educated” … the “not Ahmadinejad” faction. These are the revolutionaries working to bring enlightenment to the government through their candidate. As you are probably aware, the election instead brought what Bahari’s mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog) calls “the same old sh**”. In other words, despite seemingly overwhelming support, their candidate lost in what they can only assume was another fixed election.

Bahari’s personal story is the focus of the film much more than an investigative look into Iranian elections. He films the protests of the election aftermath, and the next morning he is awakened to a search of his personal belongings. The accusations begin with such laughers as having his “Sopranos” DVD classified as a pornography collection. Laughs are short-lived though, as Bahari is arrested and swept away to the prison. The torture he faces is nothing like what we witnessed in Zero Dark Thirty, but the psychological warfare waged by his interrogator (Kim Bodnia) is designed to break down Bahari emotionally so that he admits to being a spy (an enemy of the government).

We certainly gain insight into Bahari’s personal struggle to maintain his hope and position. Visions of his father and sister appear to him in his cell and provide advice. These apparitions seem more level-headed and passionate than Bahari was even before his arrest. And therein lies the biggest issue with the movie. We know how the story ends, so the suspense is non-existent. Instead, we are somehow to relate to the daily misery endured by Bahari, but that just isn’t captured in a two hour movie. The closest we get is a remarkable sequence where Mr Bernal (as Bahari) moves to the music (in his head) of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”. This is a man clinging to hope for his future with memories from the past. It’s a very touching moment.

The need for a free press is obvious from this story, but it’s unclear whether another point made in the movie was intentional. Bahari has his camera holstered during the violent election aftermath until he is disparaged by one of the rebels … something along the lines of “you have a weapon and choose not to use it”. This moment raises the question of whether these political correspondents are so concerned about personal danger that they let that affect the stories they tell and the pictures we see. This may be the most powerful question raised by the film, and one not easy to answer.

Lastly, it does seem at times that the movie plays as Jon Stewart’s tribute to Maziar Bahari, which makes us wonder whether Stewart’s burden of guilt from his (unintended) role in Bahari’s capture was the driving force behind the making of the film. It comes across a bit light on issues and heavy on hero-worship (apology). Still, mixing in actual news footage and the role of social media, keeps us from forgetting that this is a real man plunged into a dangerous situation simply because he was trying to show and tell the truth.

watch the trailer: