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.

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BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. That VOICE! During my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to see many of rock’s greatest bands live in concert, including: The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and AC/DC. Each of these bands are amazing, but no other concert combined the energy, showmanship and musicianship as Queen (two different tours). And certainly no other lead singer donned a Harlequin leotard … only Freddie Mercury could make that look seem natural.

This is such an odd movie, and one that is somewhat difficult to discuss. It’s billed as an “inspiring story”, though one wonders how self-destructive living, an acrimonious band break-up, and dying young of AIDS could be considered inspiring. It’s not supposed to be a biopic, but the vast majority of the screen time is devoted to Freddie Mercury. And to really confound us, the film kind of drags (pun possibly intended) during the personal story times … and then explodes with greatness during the band and live performance segments.

Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury, and he perfectly captures the swagger and strut of one of rock’s greatest theatrical showmen. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsari in Zanzibar, and the film shows us his conservative family and time spent working as a baggage handler at Heathrow. Of course, things change quickly once he joins up with guitarist Brian May (played here by Gwylim Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, MARY SHELLEY). When bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) is added, Queen is born.

With a story and script from two Oscar nominated writers, Peter Morgan (THE QUEEN, ironically) and Anthony McCarten (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), it’s surprising that much of the film is downright slow – especially the bits with frenemy Paul (Allen Leach). Perhaps this is more a factor of the issues with the director’s chair, where Bryan Singer is credited despite being fired during production. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel filled in until Dexter Fletcher (next year’s Elton John biopic ROCKETMAN) was hired to complete the film. Lucy Boynton (so good in SING STREET) holds her own as Mercury’s wife and friend Mary Austin, and Mike Myers plays producer Ray Foster (with a tip of the cap to WAYNE’S WORLD). Other supporting work comes courtesy of Dickie Beau as influential DJ Kenny Everett, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander and Aaron McCusker.

The 20th Century Fox opening fanfare has its own Queen version, and is not to be missed as the film begins. Of course, it’s the infamous 1985 Live Aid performance that is the film’s highlight and one that will leave every audience member pumped up, smiling, and singing along. It’s a stunning sequence on a custom built Wembley Stadium stage, and it helps erase much of the tedium of the film’s non-band scenes. Erasing any doubt as to whether the film is worth the price of addition … hearing that VOICE at full volume on today’s theatrical sound systems. Killer Queen.

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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.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015)

August 16, 2015

MI rogue nation Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been almost 20 years since the beginning of the MI movie franchise, and in that time, Tom Cruise has aged at least 3 months. Perhaps the prank is on us and Mr Cruise actually filmed his scenes for all 5 Mission: Impossible movies in 1995. Of course that didn’t happen, yet somehow each entry of the series manages to get bigger and louder and wilder, so that we may continually marvel at the fountain of youth and physical prowess of the actor seemingly born to play Ethan Hunt.

Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) becomes the fifth different director to helm a film in the franchise, and he kicks things off with the stunning pre-credit action sequence you have probably already heard about … Cruise tackles an Airbus A400M (aka a huge cargo plane). It’s a short, but incredibly impressive stunt sequence that sets the stage for a movie filled with action, fighting, stunts, comedy, and intrigue – all with minimal CGI.

Alec Baldwin appears as the head of the CIA and the guy trying to permanently shut down the IMF (Impossible Mission Force), while Jeremy Renner does his best to prevent this from happening – without officially confirming or denying any specific action of Ethan Hunt’s team. When Baldwin wins, Cruise goes rogue in an attempt to track down Soloman Lane (played by Sean Harris), the sinister leader of the terrorist group known as The Syndicate (mentioned briefly at the end of the last MI movie).

As spectacular as Cruise is, the real flavor of the movie comes courtesy of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa – a spy, double spy, or something else. Ilsa is smart and exceedingly well trained, and the perfect partner/adversary for Hunt … depending on the moment. Admittedly, this viewer knew nothing of Ms. Ferguson prior to the film, as her best known work as come on TV’s “The White Queen”. While I couldn’t help but chuckle as Ilsa made her way through Casablanca, it seemed apropos since fellow Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman made cinematic history there some 73 years prior.

Simon Pegg returns and as a bigger role this time alongside Cruise. Pegg plays gadget-dude Benji Dunn, and as you would expect adds a welcome dose of comical dialogue along the way. Joining Cruise as the only actors to appear in all five MI movies is Ving Rhames as Luther. He is given little to do this time, and it’s pretty clear Mr. Rhames has not adhered to the same workout program as Mr Cruise over the years. Alec Baldwin seems to be parodying Alec Baldwin these days, and he has become a real on screen distraction – seriously in need of a change-of-pace role. Sean Harris uses his voice to generate an unusual coldness to his role as villain, and Simon McBurney and Tom Hollander deliver the expected steady turns.

With a nod to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, there is a wonderful sequence at the Venice Austria Opera House … in the background to Puccini’s Turandot. In addition to the Opera and the opening aviation-based fun, we also have an exhilarating motorcycle chase, some new and tricky high-tech gadgetry, an unusual car chase through the hairpin turns of Morocco, the patented MI “mask” trick, and plenty of fight scenes involving Cruise and Ferguson.  Even if none of that existed, fans like me would still buy a ticket just to hear the theatrical version of one of the most iconic theme songs ever written (by Lalo Schifrin).

If you are a fan of the Mission: Impossible franchise, you will undoubtedly find this to be a welcome and fun addition. And since Cruise has already signed on for another, the most impossible mission may be in determining whether he gets any older prior to its release.

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HANNA

April 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I am struggling a bit with how much to say about this one. It is such a different type of film that it’s difficult to categorize. Yes, it is definitely an Action-Thriller (in the Bourne vein), but it also has some dark comedy, as well as some commentary on parenting, governmental agencies and coming of age.

Let me first say that I highly recommend the film if you are a fan of thrillers and/or action films. It succeeds well on both fronts. However, there is much more to this movie, particularly the fantastic talents of Saoirse Ronan. You will remember her stunning turn in both Atonement and The Lovely Bones. Here she plays Hanna, a girl raised in the deep forest by her father (Eric Bana). His sole purpose in raising her was to train her to be a deadly weapon in any situation. Oh and he also “schooled” her with some generic encyclopedia that has the look of a gas station giveaway. Her head is filled with facts, figures and data on all parts of the world, and somehow she speaks an infinite number of languages.

When she finally tires of gutting deer in the wild, she tells her father she is “ready”. We then find out that her father is some type of former CIA agent and with the flip of a sonar switch, the two separate and the CIA moves in to capture her. While sitting in a secured bunker in the desert, her “mission” becomes clear. She is to kill the CIA agent played by Cate Blanchett, who is connected to Hanna’s “birth” and the death of her mother. That’s when the movie kicks into gear.

 What follows are some terrific action and fight sequences, a wonderful segment where Hanna hangs out with a traveling British family led by Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng … and their daughter Sophie, played exceptionally well by Jessica Barden. The “friendship” that Sophie and Hanna create really brings into focus how sheltered from society Hanna has been.

The cat and mouse chase with Blanchett and her thugs would have worked even better if Blanchett’s character had been better defined and she wasn’t just god-awful in it. Usually Ms. Blanchett is a strong actress who adds much to a film. Here, she is the dead-weight keeping it from reaching even greater heights.  And what’s with her dental hygenic practices?

 The film is directed by Joe Wright, who has also provided Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and The Soloist. The man knows how to make a movie … and that’s why this is so much more than an action flick. I must also mention that the Chemical Brothers are standouts with the film score, and though it catches you off guard at first, it really adds impact and effect to the film. There have been a few recent films with young girls in action/fight films. And while Chloe Moretz was excellent in Kick-Ass, this film is far superior. Get to know Saoirse (pronounced Sur-Shuh) Ronan. She is a real talent!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the action-thriller genre … especially those with a twist

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’ve had your fill of fight scenes OR anytime you see a female field dress a large mammal, you think of Sarah Palin