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.

watch the trailer:

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MOONLIGHT (2016)

November 27, 2016

moonlight Greetings again from the darkness. It’s uncertain whether writer/director Barry Jenkins has developed the story from Tarell McCraney in order to highlight stereotypes, explain stereotypes, or both. The interpretation is up to the viewer, but what’s clear is that the film is one of the most sensitive portraits we’ve seen of growing up young, black, and sexually confused, while being mostly neglected by a drug-addicted mother.

Told in standard triptych structure, the film chronicles 3 stages in the life of a young male, with the chapters titled Little – Chiron – Black, for the names he is known by at each stage. As a 9 year old boy, “Little” (a nickname due to his small stature) is a wide-eyed near-mute who gets bullied and called names by the bigger boys. It’s at this stage where he is taken under the wing of local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who offers a “safe place” to sleep and eat, with the bonus of swimming lessons accentuated by life lessons from Juan and his understanding girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monea). It’s a poignant and painful moment when Little connects the dots between his mother (Naomie Harris) and Juan.

As a high school adolescent, Chiron is now a nervous, totally-withdrawn kid who simply doesn’t fit in – and doesn’t understand why. His high-crime Miami neighborhood is even more dangerous for him now as the schoolyard bullying is often accompanied by violent behavior. His surrogate father figure Juan is no longer in the picture, but Teresa is still there for him – always at the ready with a meal, clean sheets, and a spoonful of wisdom.

In the final chapter, we catch up with a hardened “Black” (another nickname) 10 years after high school followed by a stint in prison. He has moved from his Miami roots, and it’s at this stage where we fully understand the influence of a role model on a boy who has few. When he reconnects with childhood buddy Kevin, we see the shredded remnants of young “Little” still present in the older, experienced “Black”. This circle of life is understandable, while at the same time being nearly unbearable.

In addition to Mr. Ali and Ms. Monea (both who are excellent in the upcoming Hidden Figures), and the standout work of Ms. Harris, the six actors who play Chiron and Kevin through the years are fascinating to watch. Alex Hibbert perfectly captures the confused “Little”. Ashton Sanders plays the awkward, dreading-each-day Chiron; and Trevante Rhodes (former University of Texas athlete) plays the adult “Black” with a quiet uneasiness that resonates on screen. The 3 Kevin actors are Jaden Piner, Jharell Jerome, and Andre Holland (a standout as the adult Kevin).

Beautifully filmed in all three segments by cinematographer James Laxton, the film reiterates the importance of role models, especially in the life of those whose path seems pre-ordained by circumstance. The harsh realities of drug addiction, absentee parents, schoolyard bullying, and the almost inevitable stint behind bars are contrasted with a plate of fries, the chef’s special from an old friend, and the soothing effects of sand and sea. Encouraging our kids to be true to themselves is a lesson that can fall on deaf ears when surviving the moment is first and foremost. This incredibly sensitive film is likely either a necessary reminder or an eye-opening education … depending on your own situation.

watch the trailer: