City of Ghosts (2017)


ISIS: The sunset of decency.

(2017) Documentary (IFC) Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad, Hassan, Hussam, Naji Jerf, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Directed by Matthew Heineman

 

Courage comes in all sorts of forms. There are those who go out and put their lives in harm’s way, whether they be soldiers or police officers or firemen; we think of these brave men and women first most of the time when we think of courage. There are other ways of putting one’s life on the line  however; there are those who attempt to tell the world the truth despite danger to life and limb.

Raqqa is a Syrian city on the Euphrates river. Once upon a time it was a beautiful city, idyllic in many ways. Life there was good; it was a great place to raise a family. However during the Arab spring the citizens of Raqqa were unhappy with the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad and demonstrated against the strongman. He responded by putting the city under fire and the citizens fought back.

It was the perfect storm for ISIS to move in and capture the city. At first, they were welcomed as liberators. After all, they had to be better than what was previously in power, right? As it turned out, things were far from right. ISIS instituted a despotic rule in which citizens were routinely beheaded, thrown from buildings, crucified, shot or otherwise executed for violations of Sharia law, real or perceived. Those in opposition to the rule of ISIS were also given the same treatment.

Various citizens of Raqqa began to fight back in a different way. Knowing that guns and violence would not dislodge the battle-hardened ISIS warriors, they chose to use truth and facts as their weapons. Taking video on cell phones, they uploaded images that contradicted the official ISIS lie that Raqqa had become an Eden with happy citizens and smiling children. It had become a place where starvation was common, even basic medical services non-existent and where citizens live in constant fear of their lives. Their children are being indoctrinated and their wives sexually assaulted.

Three men – Aziz, a former hard-partying college student; Mohamad, a math teacher moved to action when one of his young students was arrested, and Hussam, a former lawyer – became along with camera operator Hamoud the backbone of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. With Raqqa being virtually cut off from the rest of the world, cell phone video is being smuggled out by these men who have been forced to leave their home city and take refuge in places like Turkey and Germany.

Some of the images here are graphic; people are beheaded, people are shot in the back of the head, people are thrown off of buildings. The aftermath of these grisly demises are also shown. It is most definitely not a film for those sensitive to such things who should probably not see this unless they feel strongly that they can handle those images.

There is also the matter of the soundtrack which at times is distracting from the images that are being shown. It is not good when you notice the score; something subtle should have been used because these images deserve to exercise their full power on the viewer. They don’t need any musical assistance.

What is compelling is the eyes of those living in Raqqa; the pain is clear and obvious. In the men struggling to save their city it is just as obvious; one of the movie’s most memorable moments is of Aziz quietly smoking. As he smokes, he begins to shake violently as if all the horror and stress is catching up with him. It catches up with all of us, too. These are men who have given up everything and most of them have had family members and friends executed in retaliation for their efforts. Nobody can question their commitment or their courage.

This is a powerful movie that is moving and inspiring but also infuriating. Such inhumanity and casual evil makes you want to lash out and somebody, anybody. The caution here is to not to think that all Muslims are ISIS and there are certainly those in our country who will think so. The heroes in this movie are also Muslim and they fight for their homes and their family with decency and passion. It is ironic that in Germany where some of those whose lives are in imminent danger (some of their number have been assassinated outside of Syria) are the targets of German anti-immigration militants who want them sent back to wherever they came from. This movie is a means of seeing exactly where they came from and why they can’t return. We should be standing alongside these men and supporting them, not calling for them to be sent home. In this case, it is the refugees who are heroes and the anti-immigrant protesters who are the cowards and isn’t that ironic indeed.

This is an essential documentary in 2017 and is likely to get another Oscar nomination for Heineman which if it happens will be richly deserved. It couldn’t have been easy to get these men, who are under threat of death by people who are serious about killing them, to open up on camera but he did. Even as Heineman shows us peaceful images of the timeless Euphrates, he reminds us that there are things worth fighting for – one’s home is worth defending no matter what the odds.

Those wanting to see the video firsthand as well as what’s going on currently in Raqqa can check out their website here.

REASONS TO GO: The courage on display here is overwhelming. There are some intensely powerful moments. The Euphrates is a beautiful and ancient river. You get a real sense of the pressure these men are under.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is occasionally intrusive. Some of the images are extremely unsuitable for the impressionable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a whole lot of violence and some disturbing images of death and the dead.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Heineman’s last film, Cartel Land played the Florida Film Festival in 2015 and would go on to be nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar as well as winning three Emmy awards.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Men in Aleppo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Snatched

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The Godfather Part II


A picture of corruption.

A picture of corruption.

(1974) Drama (Paramount) Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire, John Cazale, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo, G.D. Spradlin, Richard Bright, Gaston Moschin, Tom Rosqui, Bruno Kirby, Frank Sivero, Morgana King, Francesca de Sapio, Mariana Hill, Dominic Chianese, Troy Donahue, James Caan, Abe Vigoda. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

It is rare enough that a movie with the quality and the impact of The Godfather gets made. It is rarer still that a movie that prestigious has a sequel made. And for that sequel to be as good if not better than the precursor, well that’s a very lonely group.

But that’s exactly what Francis Ford Coppola did when he made the second installment of what would turn out to be a trilogy. The story is told in two distinct segments that are alternated in the original cut of the film between young Vito Corleone fleeing from Sicily from a corrupt Mafia don who’d murdered his father over an imagined slight. Young Vito (De Niro) marries and tries a life of the straight and narrow but poverty and corruption conspire to draw him into a life of crime at which he excels. The other segment is that of Michael, now head of the family, brokering a deal with Jewish gangster Hymen Roth (Strasberg) in Cuba while dealing with betrayal from a source unexpectedly close to him.

Coppola deftly weaves the two stories together and although they are essentially unrelated, the flow of the movie is never interrupted. It’s a masterful job of directing and editing and a tribute that we as the audience are never disappointed when one segment ends and the next one begins. We are equally drawn to young Vito and the older Michael.

Pacino, reprising his role as Michael Corleone and without Marlon Brando to upstage him, turns in what is largely considered the defining performance of his career. The corruption of Michael is growing as his desire for power and to retain it at all costs slowly warps his soul. It’s absolutely masterful as we see Michael turn from soft-spoken war hero to cold, calculating monster in the course of two films.

There are some powerful scenes, such as one before a Senate subcommittee on organized crime in which one of Michael’s capos are due to testify against him. The mute confrontation between Frankie Pentangeli (Gazzo) and his brother is as powerful a moment as has ever been recorded in cinema.

The question of whether the sequel is better than the original is one that rages fairly passionately within the film buff community. There are plenty who argue that the first is the best; there are just as many who argue just as vehemently that the sequel outdoes the original. For my own part, I think that both movies are nearly equal in cinematic excellence. My own personal preference leans towards the first Godfather however – by just a hair.

So do you need both of these films? Absolutely. Separately they are both magnificent films that should be in every film lover’s collection. Together they constitute one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of the movies. They remain today as they were 40 years ago enormously influential not only on the gangster genre but on cinema in general. This, like the first film, is one you’ll want to see many, many times and will pick up something new that you didn’t notice before each time you see it.

WHY RENT THIS: Another must-see for everyone who loves movies. A rare sequel that is as good as the original.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find the violence off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES:  More than its share of violence (some of it bloody) and foul language. There is also some sensuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first sequel to win a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.0M on a $13M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Out of the Furnace

The Last Samurai


The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise teaches modern warfare tactics to the Scientologists.

(2003) Action (Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, William Atherton, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Timothy Spall, Masato Harada, Togo Igawa, Shin Koyamada, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki, Shun Sugata, Sosuki Ikematsu, Aoi Minato, Shichinosuke Nakamura. Scott Wilson. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

Over the lives of those who devote themselves to the art of war and a life of dealing death, a question of honor must always hover. For what cause does one fight, kill, die? What can be worth the moral choices of taking another human life?

For Nathan Algren (Cruise), the morality of being a warrior has become murky. A hero of the American Civil War, he has grown disillusioned and bitter, having seen carnage inflicted on women and children by cowardly officers bent more on making names for themselves than fulfilling their mission during the Indian Wars. Algren has become an alcoholic, a shell and a parody of himself, shilling the Winchester rifle and using whiskey to medicate his emotional pain.

For Katsumoto (Watanabe), the morality is clear. A samurai whose life is given in service to his emperor, the world is becoming a colder, crueler place. As Japan moves reluctantly to modernize and traffic with the rest of the world, the changes that are brought into that country are sometimes painful, and Katsumoto can clearly see the end of his way of life approaching. However, his unwavering devotion to his country and the emperor makes him and his kind targets of those who seek to create a new Japan, one that will profit them above all.

Algren is invited to Japan by his former commander Bagley (Goldwyn) and a Japanese railroad magnate Omura (Harada) to modernize the Imperial Japanese Army and teach it to use the weapons of Western war. Emperor Meiji (Nakamura) is enamored of the West and is a little weak, but his mentor, Katsumoto, still has his ear, making him dangerous to Omura and those like him. Katsumoto is trying to get the emperor to rethink his plans, but is ultimately forced from court and into rebellion when Omura’s assassins fail.

Algren at first is little more than a hired hand, but after being captured by Katsumoto, he is brought to a remote mountain village which is Katsumoto’s home, and is exposed to the samurai life and code, and begins to heal, not just from the wounds inflicted in the battle, but also in his spirit, where his pain has been festering for so long. Hired to destroy the samurai, Algren at last joins them, despite facing terrible odds.

The shadow of Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors of all time, is evident here. Director Edmund Zwick (Shakespeare in Love, Glory, Legends of the Fall) was heavily influenced by the man in the director’s chair for such classics as Ran, Rashomon and Yojimbo. In fact, a screening of Seven Samurai when Zwick was 14 provided the young man with a lifelong interest in Japan and in movies as well. In the battle scenes, particularly, Zwick pays the master a great deal of homage in the way he sets his scenes up, although not nearly as poetically and poignantly as did Kurosawa.

This interest in Japan led Zwick to read Ivan Morris’ “The Nobility of Failure,” the account of Saigo Takamori, a real-life samurai in the Meiji court who at first embraced but eventually renounced the modernization of Japan. The roots of The Last Samurai can be found here.

Zwick succeeds in creating a rich landscape of intrigue and honor, as the loyal, honorable samurai are faced with the treacherous, scheming industrialists. There is a love interest as Algren falls for the widow (Koyuki) of a samurai he had slain, and it is there that the two cultures meet most poignantly, and most awkwardly.

Cruise does a difficult job nicely here. In a role that changes from a washed-up, alcoholic, bitter man into a courageous, honorable warrior, Cruise carries both of these facets of the Algren character nicely, and allows us to see the progression from one to the other. Seeing this again reminds me that although he is best known as the charismatic movie star, Tom Cruise can really act when he gets the right part.

Although Cruise is the center of the movie, he is overshadowed by the spectacular performance of Watanabe. Katsumoto is a wise man, a beloved leader and a magnificent tactician, but also melancholy, knowing the life he has loved is slipping away and that he is unlikely to survive its passing. Watanabe is subtle, which is not something Japanese actors are traditionally known for. He creates a character rich in contradictions and complexities, and lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. He would be nominated for an Oscar for his performance and even though he didn’t win, the movie established him in Hollywood where he would go on to roles in major films including Batman Begins.

Character actors Billy Connelly and Timothy Spall also put in solid performances. The battle scenes are truly memorable – this is where the Kurosawa influence most obviously comes into play. Zwick is also very good at establishing a good sense of period. Although the visual Kurosawa references can be a little heavy-handed at times, Zwick wisely chooses to put his own stamp on The Last Samurai, and that’s what makes for a good movie. Sure, there are elements of Ran but there are elements of Glory in the battle sequences as well.

The film has epic, sweeping landscapes, wonderfully staged battle scenes and allows us to view a culture very much misunderstood even to this day, and gives us a chance to see how Japan started on the road into becoming the mega-commercial technological giant it is in the 21st century.

Still, what ultimately makes this an excellent movie is that it is about the journey of the people in it. It is much harder to comprehend the journeys of nations; we can’t relate to them as easily. It is far easier to relate to the growth of individuals, something we are (hopefully) all doing throughout our lives.

WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely staged battle scenes. Watanabe gives a searing, career making performance. Beautiful Kurosawa-esque cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Probably about 20 minutes too long.

FAMILY MATTERS: The battle sequences are fairly realistic and might be disturbing for some. There is plenty of bloodshed and some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although the film implies the Americans trained the Imerial Army, historically it was the Prussians who actually did.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD contains a feature comparin the film to the actual historical events at the time. There’s also footage from the film’s Japanese premiere.  The Blu-Ray adds a text piece onbushido, the code of the samurai.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $456.8M on a production budget of $140M; the movie was a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shogun

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Piranha 3DD

Ninja Assassin


Ninja Assassin

Oh, I've seen Fire and I've seen Rain...

(2009) Martial Arts Action (Warner Brothers) Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yune, Randall Duk Kim, Sung Kang, Kylie Goldstein. Directed by James McTeigue

There are certain movies that you really can’t complain about. For example, this one; the title tells you exactly what kind of movie you’re going to get. You can’t watch it and then bitch about the plot and the acting. The whole point of the movie is to have guys in black pajamas slice and dice each other and fly through the air like moths. Really, that’s the only standard a movie should be held to in reality. Still, one can dream of a little more to a movie than that, right?

Raizo (Rain) is a lethal assassin, trained from childhood (some would say abused) in the art of killing people silently and unseen by the Ozunu clan, the deadliest assassins in Japan. Their compound, high in the mountains of Japan, has never been seen by an outsider and the mere knowledge of their existence can mean death in a most painful and bloody way. Laughing at their rumored existence, well, that’s just plain stupid as a few yakuza toughs find out in the opening sequence.

However, Raizo has a bone to pick with his clan; they executed his girlfriend (Goldstein) in a most gruesome manner (which would tend to piss anybody off) and now they’re all after his ass. Raizo, the deadliest and nastiest of them, is out to topple their empire, aided by a couple of thumb-twiddling Interpol cops, Mika (Harris) and Ryan (Miles). However, Raizo has violated a cardinal rule of the ninja – something akin to rule #1, don’t talk about Fight Club. Now the clan’s leader, Ozunu (Kosugi) and his number two son Takeshi (Yune) have a real need to dismember Raizo and you just know it’s going to end badly for somebody.

This was produced by the Washowski Brothers (the Matrix trilogy) and directed by McTeigue, who previously helmed V for Vendetta which I think is a much better film than this. Part of the problem of a movie about ninja assassins is the whole conceit that they melt in and out of the shadows; by necessity the movie must be then underlit to provide said shadows, which makes seeing the fight sequences difficult at times. That’s a shame because some of the choreography is pretty damn good.

Yes, I know that you’re not supposed to talk about the acting in a movie like this (I did mention it earlier) but I do have to at least point out that I found Harris unbelievable as an Interpol agent (do Interpol agents scream like little girls whenever an assassin shows up?) and that the acting is a bit stiff in general. Rain, the Korean pop star, is more adept at dancing and singing than he is at slicing and dicing, but he performs solidly enough in his fight sequences. He showed immense potential in Speed Racer as a double-dealing race car driver which isn’t delivered on here. Harris was in the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies and was far more effective in those, so I know both of them are capable of better than they delivered here.

Sho Kosugi is one of the most revered and beloved figures in Japanese action films (particularly of the samurai variety) of the last 30 years. While known mostly to Asian cinema aficionados in the States, he brings a certain gravitas here that is quite frankly wasted. He’s well into his 60s but he can still kick patootey without breaking much of a sweat. Personally, I think he’s worth seeing even in a movie that isn’t.

Something tells me that this movie was a victim of studio over-involvement. A last minute re-write was called for and delivered in a two and a half day turn-around which allowed the movie to make its tight delivery date after which brilliant studio executives promptly delayed its release for almost a year. Really, when dealing with ninja movies it would be a wise studio executive that doesn’t get too involved with the nuts and bolts; the simpler, the better in terms of plot for these kinds of things and its best just to let your fight choreographer and director just go to town; this movie is at its best when they do just that.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very fine martial arts sequences here. It’s always a pleasure to see Kosugi, one of the underrated stars of Asian cinema.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is as wooden as it gets. There are times that the story drags, particularly in the middle. Penalty for overuse of flashbacks. Too many fight scenes lose their effectiveness because they’re badly lit.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect from a movie of this nature, there’s a boatload of violence and a smattering of foul language. Definitely for older teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski did the re-write of the original script which was, in an unusual move, approved by Warner Brothers without notes and shipped into the actor’s hands within a week.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray has a nice feature on ninjas and the mythology behind them.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.6M on a production budget of $40M; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Intermission