12 STRONG (2018)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. During the movie, Afghanistan is referred to as “the graveyard of many empires”. Traditionally, January is the graveyard of most new movie releases, so it’s a pleasant surprise when we see an entertaining, well-made and historically interesting film, and it’s still mid-January!  Doug Stanton’s book “Horse Soldiers” is the source material for director Nicolai Fuglsig’s first feature film, and it’s anything but a disappointment.

The film opens on September 11, 2001 and subjects us, yet again, to those horrific images seared into the minds of anyone alive on that day. What most of us didn’t know, was that about a month later, a team of U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) were being dropped into the rough and mostly unfriendly terrain of Afghanistan. This ridiculously courageous team of 12 men had one mission: secure Mazar-i-Sharif to prevent a takeover by the Taliban.

An early scene tells us this won’t be the usual blind patriotism we often see on screen. One of the soldiers, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), is told (with a bit of anger) by his wife, “I’ll love you when you get back.” This contrasts to the usual loyal and stiff-upper-lip military wife we see in most war movies. Another wife scrubs the oven rather than snuggle with her man, while yet another coerces a taboo pledge to come home to her.

Chris Hemsworth (THOR) plays Captain Mitch Nelson, the intelligent but not-yet-battle-tested leader of a special ops team. The plan is for Nelson and his team to connect with General Dostum, an Afghan War Lord in charge of the Northern Alliance, and fight together to gain control of Mazar. After arriving at a local outpost nicknamed “The Alamo” (34 miles from town), the team gets their first surprise … they must split up and cover the ground on horseback. Filmed in New Mexico, the journey is miserable and filled with danger – an ambush could occur at any moment, or perhaps they are being set-up by those they have been ordered to trust.

Horseback riding, caves, the weather, and the elements of the terrain are all challenges, but none of it compares to facing the Taliban forces which number in the thousands, and feature tanks, rocket launchers and an endless supply of weaponry. Director Fuglsig utilizes a “Days in Country” counter so that we can get some semblance of time and ongoing misery being fought through by the Americans. But no day is normal when the soldiers are on horseback while being attacked by tanks. The odds seem unsurmountable.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the story and welcome approaches of the film is back-and-forth between Captain Nelson and General Dostum. Initially, Dostum shows little respect by telling the young officer that he lacks “the eyes of a killer” and isn’t yet a warrior, and he spends a great deal of time lecturing and philosophizing on Nelson’s behalf. Of course, the lessons may be frustrating in the moment, but aren’t lost on Nelson as there is a huge payoff at the peak of the key battle.

The battle scenes come in all sizes – small skirmishes and massive, large scale assaults. Each is intense and dramatic and well-staged, though there are some moments where we shake our head in disbelief. At least we do until we remember that this is a true story, and despite that, it is truly unbelievable.

The supporting cast includes Michael Pena and his snappy punchlines, Trevante Rhodes (MOONLIGHT), William Fichtner with a shaved head, Elsa Pataky – Hemsworth’s real life wife as his screen wife, Taylor Sheridan, Geoff Stults and Jack Kesy. Rob Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers, who was Riggle’s commanding officer when he served in the Marines. The previously mentioned Michael Shannon is a bit underutilized, but the film’s best moments are those with Hemsworth and Navid Negahban (as General Dostum). You likely recognize Negahban as Abu Nazir from “Homeland”. It’s their exchanges that show how the line between allies and enemies is not always crystal clear – even if they are fighting for the same thing.

Writers Peter Craig (THE TOWN) and Ted Tally (Oscar winner for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) do a nice job of character development, and the camaraderie of the 12 men of ODA 595 seems authentic – despite some schmaltzy moments over their 23 days of Task Force Dagger. Early on, we are informed that the most important thing to take to war is “a reason why”, and then towards the end, Dostum explains that the United States is in a no-win situation: we are cowards if we go, and enemies if we stay. It’s chilling commentary on a war that has dragged on much too long … despite the heroic efforts of the 12 horse soldiers.

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WIND RIVER (2017)

August 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. With his two most recent screenplays, Sicario (2015) and the Oscar nominated Hell or High Water (2016), Taylor Sheridan seemed acutely attuned to the fine line between right and wrong, and the twisted complexity of new age American values when contrasted with “old school”. This time out, he both writes and directs. The themes remain familiar while the landscape shifts to the frozen tundra of Wyoming.

We first meet Fish & Wildlife Service tracker/hunter Cory (Jeremy Renner) as he picks off (with a long range rifle) a pack of wolves that is methodically encircling goats on a ranch. A very similar type situation plays out later in the film … only with humans in place of wolves and sheep. Not long after dispensing with the wolves, Cory stumbles upon the barefoot corpse of a young girl he recognizes as the former best friend of his daughter. Her frost-bitten bare feet visible, face buried in the snow, bleeding from an apparent assault, and miles from the nearest house or dwelling, the girl’s corpse is telling a story that Cory knows requires the immediate attention of law enforcement.

Ben, the Native American Reservation Police Chief (Graham Greene) has jurisdiction unless the Medical Examiner rules it a homicide. In the meantime, FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up dressed more for winter in her native Florida than the brutally cold Wyoming plains. Jane quickly proves she is no ordinary “fish out of water” (even if she lacks experience for such a case), and commissions Cory to help her out with the local people and land.

The film has many ties to the fine TV series “Longmire”, and though Mr. Renner and Ms. Olsen are well known in the Marvel Universe as Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch, there are no superheroes present here – just a convoluted society within a seemingly forgotten (or at least) ignored part of the country. It’s a police procedural blanketed in the always-falling snow, an underground drug culture, and the quiet animosity between the outside world and the Reservation (where many have given up hope).

These aren’t people that talk much, although they say plenty. Sometimes the dialogue is a bit too obvious in Mr. Sheridan’s goal of leaving no viewer behind, especially when combined with overly detailed flashback that will have the amateur sleuths in the audience feeling a bit letdown in receiving a full explanation. However, when cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Fault in Our Stars) loses the shaky-cam from indoors, and beautifully lays out the vastness of the snow vistas, forest and mountains, the remoteness and stunning landscape becomes a character as important as any other.

The supporting cast is stellar and features Julia Jones, Gil Birmingham (Jeff Bridges’ partner in Hell or High Water), Jon Bernthal, Kelsey Asbille, and a crazed James Jordan. Mr. Greene adds a touch of deadpan humor and resignation to his plight, while Ms. Olsen is effective as the ‘green’ agent dealing with an unfamiliar white-out. Mr. Renner truly excels as the throwback cowboy carrying out his duties while bearing a burden exacerbated by this case. The crunching snow, predatory lions, and high-speed snowmobiling never cause us (or Cory) to lose sight of how important it is to know the land and the people … and walk that line between right and wrong.

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HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

August 16, 2016

hell or high water Greetings again from the darkness. A good guy doing bad things for a good reason. A bad guy doing bad things for a good reason. A good guy whose make-up doesn’t allow for bad things by anyone for any reason. Director David MacKenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) serve up a quasi-western featuring a crusty old Texas Ranger doggedly pursuing two bank robbing brothers. If not for the numerous destroy-the-flow screaming political statements, this could have been a near instant classic – just a tick below No Country for Old Men.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard. Details eek out slowly about each … most importantly that Toby is a divorced dad and Tanner is an ex-con. Toby has meticulously planned out their bank robbery spree. The goal is to save his family ranch so his boys can escape the “disease” of poverty. Tanner is along to support his brother … and probably because he enjoys the adrenaline rush.

Soon enough, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is on the trail of the boys, and his highly developed instincts and gut feelings annoy his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) almost as much as Marcus’ incessant and insensitive racial teases – a reminder of the days when buddies would verbally jab each other without the risk of class action lawsuits.

The performances are all excellent. Pine is the quiet guy resigned to a life without happiness, but refusing to give up on his boys. Foster is the wide-eyed trouble-maker who long ago realized he would always be one careless moment from the end. Bridges literally becomes the Ranger being forced into retirement (age) but intent on remaining somewhat relevant. Additional support work is also quite colorful in a west Texas kind of way. The wonderful Dale Dickey gets an early sequence with the boys, the great Buck Taylor is always a pleasant presence, Margaret Bowman adds yet another memorable character to her resume as the T-Bone waitress, and Katy Mixon (“Eastbound and Down”) gets to stand up for the little people.

West Texas is a character unto itself with massive poverty, oil pumps on the horizon, dusty streets, rickety fences, and gun-toting citizens everywhere. Each of these elements is beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Dom Hemingway), as are the actual bank robberies and the quiet moments between brothers and Rangers partners. To cap it off, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis add a nice score and even better soundtrack … the best of which is an opening song from Townes Van Zandt .

Mixed in with the impending gloom are some terrifically witty exchanges and some downright funny moments. Exceptional acting, a spot on setting, wonderful photography, and superb music are only slightly offset by the previously mentioned obnoxious and too obvious shots taken at big banks and oil companies. Sometimes a good story can be just that … and not a political statement.

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SICARIO (2015)

September 24, 2015

sicario Greetings again from the darkness. Really good thrillers – the kind that make our palms sweat and cause us to forget to blink – are increasingly rare in the world of cinema these days. Writer Taylor Sheridan’s script doesn’t choose the good guys, but instead highlights the terror and lack of rules and morality that guide the border wars and drug cartels. It turns out the border isn’t the only line being crossed. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies) elevates Sheridan’s excellent script further with a strong cast and some outstanding camera work from the best Director of Photography working today, Roger Deakins.

The opening sequence is about as tense as anything we could ever hope for on screen, and it introduces us to FBI Agent Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt. We soon learn Kate is a focused and dedicated tactical expert, who also happens to be idealistic enough to believe the raids conducted by her team are making a difference … at least until this belief is later challenged.

Kate quickly finds herself “volunteering” for a special task force with muddled goals, uncertain tactics, and secretive leadership. Josh Brolin plays Matt, the leader of the team. He charms his way through answering Kate’s questions without offering any substantive intel. When asked about the mission objective, Matt responds with “to create chaos” and a smirk. Adding to her confusion and wariness is the mysterious “consultant” Alejandro (the “hitman” of the title) played by Benecio Del Toro. Part of the brilliance of the script is that everyone seems to know what’s happening except Kate and us (the viewers)!  Our understanding comes through the slow-drip method and keeps us fully engaged.

Similarities to both Zero Dark Thirty and Apocalypse Now struck me as the film progressed, but the sheer number of stress-inducing sequences set this apart as something different. A family dinner with a drug lord is one of the more fascinating and tension-packed scenes of the year. The moral complexity is thought-provoking, and the abundance of corruption and politics in relation to the cartels and war on drugs, leave us wondering not just whether this war can be won, but through what methods is it being fought.

Welcome to Juarez”, says Alejandro, as the SUV motorcade makes its way past the remnants of a brutal crime scene. Although there are some tremendous sequences of tactical raids (and the best traffic jam you’ve seen), this should not be labeled as an action film … it’s so much more. Ms. Blunt’s character is the conscience of the film, but it’s Brolin’s Matt that makes us curious as to his background and motivation. And as interesting as are those two characters, they pale in comparison to Benecio’s man on a mission. Del Toro doesn’t act frequently, but he possesses the gift that has him dominating the screen … forcing our eyes to follow his every movement. Rumors have a prequel in the works that will focus on Alejandro’s roots. It’s the “land of wolves”, and Alejandro is an alpha.

Lastly, it must be stated that the film is a technical treat. The unique score from Johann Johannsson is never overbearing, and often mimics our pounding hearts. It’s worth taking note. Best of all is the work of the great Roger Deakins. His photography is astounding and this could be his best work yet. The desert landscapes are just as crucial as the claustrophobic raids or the impromptu strategy sessions, and Deakins puts us right where we need to be. As a companion piece to this excellent film, I would recommend Matthew Heineman’s extraordinary documentary from earlier this year, Cartel Land.

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