Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Feels

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Unsane


Claire Foy still manages to get her running in on the set.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Amy Irving, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Sarah Stiles, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Polly McKie, Raul Castillo, Gibson Frazier, Lydia Mauze, Colin Woodell, Zach Cherry, Mike Mihm, Robert Kelly, Erin Wilhelmi, Sol M. Crespo, Natalie Gold, Emily Happe, Will Brill, Steven Maier, Matt Damon, Erika Rolfsrud, Aimee Mullins. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh

 

Most people don’t think they’re crazy. Even when they are, the thought that they are insane is ludicrous to them; it is the rest of the world that’s bonkers. We are all normal at least within ourselves.

The interestingly-named Sawyer Valentini (Foy) seems on the surface to have her stuff together. She works as a financial analyst and is brutally honest with her clients, a trait that gets her noticed by management. However, there are cracks in the facade. She really doesn’t have many social skills and her brutal honesty at work doesn’t translate well to her personal life. To be honest though that’s the way she likes it. When she uses her dating app, she tells the man who wants to date her that she can guarantee that he will get lucky that evening just as long as he understands that she’s not interested in romance or any further relationship beyond a roll in the hay. Most guys are going to leap into that with both feet.

However, Sawyer is bothered by dreams and occasional visions of a man who stalked her back when she lived in Boston. The stalking had eventually driven her to move to Philadelphia and start anew. She goes to the Highland Creek Mental Health Hospital to talk to someone about her fears. She is given some “routine paperwork” to fill out.

It turns out that the owners of Highland Creek aren’t nearly as altruistic as they sound; Sawyer has just signed papers consenting to a 24-hour voluntary commitment for which her insurance will duly be billed. When Sawyer loses it, those 24 hours become 72, then a full week when she slugs an orderly. Sawyer has a real issue with commitment apparently.

On her ward is Nate (Pharoah), an easy going chemical dependency patient, and Violet (Temple) who is pretty much aggressive and a bit psychotic. But one of the orderlies is a dead ringer for David Strine (Leonard) who stalked her in Boston. In fact, Sawyer is certain that he’s David Strine, come to finally claim her. Of course, nobody believes her and why should they? On the surface, it sounds crazy especially in light that she’s admitted to occasionally seeing him when he’s clearly not there. But is this a part of her delusion, or is she legitimately in danger?

Much has been made of the fact that Soderbergh shot the entire movie on an iPhone 7 plus and for the record it looks a hell of a lot better than it would if you or I shot it on our iPhones. There isn’t the jerky motion that comes from shooting on a handheld device; I have to wonder if Soderbergh some sort of Steadicam-like device to keep the motion of the camera smooth. The depth of field is also comparative to most professionally shot productions. However, the issues that iPhones have with lighting are definitely present here; some of the scenes are so poorly lit that it’s hard to see what’s happening onscreen.

Da Queen had a big problem with the plot in that the “is she or isn’t she crazy” question is resolved way too early leaving the movie with kind of anti-climactic tone. However, Soderbergh has tended to avoid making straightforward films. My gut tells me that he was trying to make a point. As part of the #MeToo era, I think Soderbergh was trying to make a point. He was trying to teach us what it’s like to not be believed – to be thought hysterical and untruthful which is clearly where Sawyer is coming from. There is definitely a message here and that message is “Sometimes you just have to take it on faith that the woman is actually a victim who is telling the truth about what is happening/happened to her. If so, it’s a powerful message that a lot of men need to receive. A lot of women too for that matter.

Foy, best known for the Netflix/BBC series The Crown is making a mark as an outstanding actress with excellent range. She delivers most of her lines in a flat, nasal delivery that sounds at home in New England. On top of that, she gives the impression of being fragile and brittle, far from the self-assured Queen Elizabeth II that she plays in her Netflix series. She’s very much like a lifelong smoker who has quit cold turkey; you can feel her nerves jangling from miles away.

Leonard makes a suitably sinister stalker. He’s not physically intimidating but there is an undercurrent of violence that threatens to erupt in several places; when it finally comes forward he proves to be vicious and unsympathetic. Leonard is himself a versatile performer who hasn’t yet gotten a role that is going to move him up the Hollywood ladder. Maybe one will come based on his work here.

This is a woman’s ultimate nightmare; to be trapped in a place she can’t escape from with a man who has been giving her unwanted sexual attention. I would imagine the very concept is going to make some women squeamish before they even start munching on their popcorn. It’s a movie that is genuinely creepy and reminds us that Soderbergh is the type of director who can work in just about any genre – action, comedy, drama, thriller, science fiction – and make a movie that is interesting and different. This isn’t likely to pull in big bucks at the box office but it could be one of those alternate choices for movie watching either in the theaters if you don’t want to see the big-budget films that are currently populating the multiplex or later on if you’re looking for something to watch at home once it becomes available. Either way, this is definitely one to take a chance on.

REASONS TO GO: Foy continues to be more and more impressive with each performance. This is a super creepy movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes are so dimly lit it’s hard to follow what’s actually happening. A major plot point is resolved way too early which gives the movie an anti-climactic tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing behavior, graphic violence, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hospital scenes were filmed at Summit Park Hospital in Pomona, New York. The hospital had closed on December 31, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: John Carpenter’s The Ward
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Death of Stalin

The Man Who Invented Christmas


God bless us every one? Bah, humbug!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Anna Murphy, Justin Edwards, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Ger Ryan, Ian McNeice, Bill Patterson, Donald Sumpter, Miles Jupp, Cosimo Fusco, Annette Badland, Eddie Jackson, Sean Duggan, Degnan Geraghty, David McSavage, Valeria Bandino. Directed by Bharat Nalluri

 

One of the most beloved and most adapted stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What some folks might not know is that Dickens wrote, had illustrated and self-published the work in an amazing (for the era) six weeks. It was a massive hit on the heels of three straight flops which had begun to lead the publishing world to question whether he was the real thing or a flash in the pan. He was on the verge of financial ruin when Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim and company rescued him.

As we meet Dickens (Stevens) the financial pressures have become overwhelming. He and his wife Kate (Clark) are undergoing an expensive renovation of their home complete with plenty of Italian marble; the last three books after the unquestioned success of Oliver Twist have under-performed and his friend/manager John Forster (Edwards) tells him that his publishers are clamoring for a success and an advance is out of the question.

A story told to his children by Irish maid Brigid (Murphy) gives Dickens the idea of a Christmas-set ghost story but he is in the throes of an anxiety-fueled writer’s block that is threatening his entire career. A chance meeting with a grumpy old man gives him the idea of a miser at the center of the story and once he comes up with the name for the character – Ebeneezer Scrooge (Plummer) – he materializes and starts to argue with Dickens on the direction of the book. People who surround Dickens start to become various characters in the novella; a lawyer becomes Marley (Sumpter), a nephew becomes Tiny Tim, a couple dancing in the festive streets of London become the Fezziwigs and so on.

To make matters worse, Dickens’ spendthrift father John (Pryce) and mother (Ryan) drop by for an extended stay. Dickens and his father have a strained relationship at best and the constant interruptions begin to fray the author’s nerves. Worse still, the novella is needed in time for Christmas which gives him a scant six weeks to write and arrange for illustration of the book with one of England’s premier artists (Callow). Kate is beginning to be concerned that all the pressure is getting to her husband who is at turns irritable and angry, then kind and compassionate. She senses that he is going to break if something isn’t done and time is running out.

I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations for this film. I had a feeling it was going to be something of a Hallmark movie and for the first thirty minutes of the film I was right on target. However a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the movie: it got better. A lot better, as a matter of fact. The movie turns out to be extremely entertaining and heartwarming in a non-treacly way.

Stevens, one of the stars that emerged from Downton Abbey, does a credible job with Dickens although at times he seems unsure of what direction to take him. Plummer could do Scrooge in his sleep if need be but gives the character the requisite grumpiness and a delightful venal side that makes one  think that Plummer would be magnificent in a straight presentation of the story.

This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title that I have a feeling is more close to what actually occurred than this is, but one of the things that captured my attention was the dynamic between father and son. Certainly Dickens was scarred by his father’s imprisonment in a debtor’s prison when he was 12, forcing him to work in a horrific shoe black factory and from which much of his passion for social justice was born.

The entourage of characters from the story that follow Dickens around is delightful. Of course, the movie shows Dickens getting an attitude adjustment and growing closer to his family thanks to his writing of the novella and who knows how accurate that truly is but one likes to believe that someone who helped make Christmas what it is today got the kind of faith in family and humanity that he inspired in others.

This has the feeling of a future holiday perennial. The kids will love the whimsical characters that not only inform the characters in the story but fire up Dickens’ imagination; the adults will appreciate the family dynamics and all will love the ending which is just about perfect. This is the kind of Christmas movie that reminds us that we are all “fellow passengers on the way to the grave” as Dickens puts it and the kind of Christmas movie that Hollywood shies away from lately. I truly wish they would get back to making movies like this one.

REASONS TO GO: A thoroughly entertaining and truly heartwarming film.  The portrayal of the relationship between Dickens and his father is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly but after the first thirty minutes or so improves greatly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The majority of the cast are trained Shakespearean actors, many of whom have appeared in a variety of adaptations of Dickens’ work through the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Sick

Breathe (2017)


Hollywood still knows how to capture romance in a single frame.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Edward Speleers, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Miranda Raison, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Amit Shah, Jonathan Hyde, Diana Rigg, David Wilmot, Emily Bevan, Stephen Mangan, Marina Bye, Dean-Charles Chapman, Sylvester Groth, Steven O’Donnell, Penny Downie, Camilla Rutherford. Directed by Andy Serkis

 

As a disabled man, I’m keenly interested in depictions of how the disabled were treated in years past. The picture is not a pretty one; often, those who had any sort of deformity or disability were warehoused, shut away from public view as much as possible. Those in extreme situations were often left to await death in depressing, grim hospitals with doctors who felt their job was merely to keep them as comfortable as possible until the end inevitably came.

This is not even on the radar of young Robin Cavendish (Garfield) in the early 1950s however. Young, healthy and exuberant to a fault he is a British Army veteran who is almost ridiculously athletic; he seems to excel at every sport he tries his hand at. Now that the war is over, he works as a tea exporter, travelling around the world.

But he runs into the beautiful Diana Blacker (Foy) at a cricket match and everything changes. He falls deeply, madly in love with her and she with him. He isn’t wealthy (she comes from privilege) but he gets by and it isn’t long before the two get married and she is joining him on his adventurous life, going on safari with him in Kenya while he hunts down tea leaves for English tea drinkers. It isn’t long before she is, as they used to say back then, with child.

But their idyllic life comes to a screeching halt when he gets ill and collapses. He is diagnosed with adult onset polio and is completely paralyzed from the neck down. He is unable to even breathe on his own. Kept alive on a respirator, Robin is flown back to England and put into a hospital where he can be properly cared for which in this case means waiting for the Grim Reaper to come knocking. Robin sinks into a deep depression, knowing the prognosis is death after two or three months of waiting. He doesn’t want to wait, in fact.

But Diana will have none of that kind of talk. Keep Calm, and Breathe is essentially her message. Robin wants to die at home; Diana has other ideas. She wants him to live at home. So she purchases a Regency-era home in the country and a respirator and her old nanny (Raison) is there to help nurse her husband.

This is a great improvement and Robin is infinitely more cheerful but he wants more. With the help of a mechanic friend (Bonneville) he helps design a wheelchair with an attached respirator. The world begins to open up a little. Soon he figures a way to outfit a car so that Robin can travel further afield. Slowly, it becomes clear that Robin isn’t about quality of life anymore; he’s about life itself.

This is a somewhat rose-colored version of the real life story of Cavendish and his family. Many innovations that help the disabled be more mobile (like car lifts) have come as a result of innovations that Cavendish and his friend Teddy Hall created. I wasn’t familiar with Cavendish before seeing this but the disabled community owes a great deal to his advocacy that even those who are severely disabled as he was could lead fulfilling, productive lives.

Garfield captures both sides of Cavendish beautifully; the dark depressed side and the upbeat, never-say-die side and he does it while spending most of the picture flat on his back and unable to move his limbs. Garfield manages to get a great deal across with just his face; he also manages to stay still which is never an easy task. Considering his performance here is at least the equal to his last one in Hacksaw Ridge which netted him an Oscar nomination, it’s not out of the range of reason that he might get another one here. It’s the kind of role Oscar tends to like.

Foy, so good in the Netflix series The Crown ups the stakes here and shows she has big screen potential as well. Her Diana Cavendish is heroic and if the screenplay makes her a bit more saintly than she likely was, it’s certainly understandable. The real Cavendish lived longer with polio-related total paralysis than anyone in the history of Great Britain and while that is admirable, it can’t have been easy on his wife. Watching over someone who is that disabled is a full-time job and one of the most stressful ones that you can have.

First-time director Andy Serkis (yes, the motion capture king) doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but he does have a good eye for the English countryside, turning it into an almost Bronte sister-like look. The supporting cast isn’t super well-known here in the States but they are all excellent and there isn’t a misstep among any of the performances that I could detect.

The movie does get a little bit maudlin towards the end and the last fifteen minutes seem manipulative enough that I think that a lot of critics who tend to hate that kind of thing probably gave the film a worse review than it deserves because of it. Nonetheless this is an uplifting tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that is tonic in a time where we seem to hear nothing but bad news about the negative aspects of the human spirit nonstop.

REASONS TO GO: Garfield could net another Oscar nomination for his work here. Lovely cinematography and Bronte-like vistas elevate the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The film gets somewhat maudlin towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mature thematic subjects including discussions of suicide, some bloody medical images and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jonathan Cavendish, Robin’s real-life son, went into film production and is one of the producers on this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Florida Project

Logan Lucky


Logan Lucky gives you the most Joe Bang for your buck.

(2017) Heist Comedy (Bleecker Street) Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Daniel Craig, David Denman, Farrah Mackenzie, Seth MacFarlane, Charles Halford, Hilary Swank, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, LeAnn Rimes, Macon Blair, Ann Mahoney. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

When Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring from directing Side Effects in 2012, a lot of film buffs – this one included – were disappointed. Soderbergh had been for more than 20 years one of the most fascinating and interesting directors ever since emerging from the indie ranks. He’d directed huge blockbusters and small intimated films but the time had come for him to hang it all up.

Thankfully, he couldn’t stay away for very long and his retirement only lasted five years. He’s back with this stupid entertaining film that can best be described as Elmore Leonard by way of The Dukes of Hazzard or the unholy lovechild of Oceans 11 and Talladega Nights.

Jimmy Logan (Tatum) is a former football star whose NFL dreams were derailed by a knee injury. Since then, he’s worked whatever jobs he could find, be them in the mines of West Virginia or a construction gig in North Carolina. Through it all he makes the time to be a dad to Sadie (Mackenzie) who lives with her mom Bobbie Jo (Holmes) and her new husband Moody (Denman).

The Logan clan has always been the poster children for the adage “If it wasn’t for bad luck they wouldn’t have any luck at all.” Jimmy’s bum knee comes to the attention of the insurance company who deem it a pre-existing condition and the construction company that Jimmy is working for in the bowels of the Charlotte Motor Speedway has to let him go. To make matters worse, it turns out that Moody is opening up a new car dealership in a distant part of West Virginia and Jimmy is likely not going to see his daughter hardly at all. Moving to be close to his little girl is something he simply can’t afford.

So he decides that he is going to have to finance his life the old-fashioned way – by stealing, and he has a whopper of a plan. He’s going to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a car show when the attendance is low and security is lax. Jimmy can’t do the job by himself so he enlists his war veteran brother Clyde (Driver) who lost his arm in Iraq, and his hairdresser sister Mellie (Keough).

Even that won’t be enough however; he needs a demolition expert and there are none better at it than Joe Bang (Craig). Unfortunately, Joe has had a disagreement with the law and is currently in residence at the West Virginia state penitentiary.. Jimmy and Clyde are going to have to break out Joe so his absence isn’t noticed and sneak him back in so that it’s like he was never gone. Why not just stay out? Because he’s close to his parole date and he doesn’t want to mess it up. Jimmy’s got a plan for that too, however.

Heist movies, when done properly are maybe the most entertaining of all movie genres. Fortunately, this one is done properly. It has a large cast but not too large; it’s got some fairly impressive names in it and a director who knows how to make use of them. The writing is taut and smart and even though much of the dialogue is delivered in thick Mountaineer State accents the pacing moves at lightning speed. There is literally never a dull moment in this film.

I have to admit that early on in Tatum’s career I was not a fan. I’m happy to say that I am now however. He has worked hard and improved almost with every movie; he has learned to improve where he can and on those things he hasn’t improved upon (yet) he makes sure he chooses roles that don’t accentuate his flaws. He has enough onscreen charm to make Leona Helmsley smile through a toothache and of course just about any lady (and quite a few men) will tell you that he’s not so hard on the eyes.

Daniel Craig is a revelation here. Generally he plays tightly wound characters but here he seems to let absolutely loose and have more fun than I’ve ever seen him have with a character, well, ever. With his bottle blonde spiky hair and cornpone accent so thick that it might have been laid on with a trowel, he inhabits the character without fear or inhibition. I would be happy to see a Joe Bang spin-off movie.

Soderbergh excels at these sorts of movies. His Oceans series is proof of that but he knows how to pace a movie to leave the audience breathless. This is about as high-octane as a NASCAR race and the viewer never has to wonder for a moment what’s going to happen next because Soderbergh wastes not a moment in this film. He also infuses it with a jet-propelled soundtrack of roots rock, country and high-octane rockers that hit the audience like a dose of jet fuel.

Now those of a Southern rural background might take offense to this and I can’t say as I blame them. The movie really plays to Hollywood stereotypes as the Southern rubes that are street-clever and get one over on the city slickers It is this kind of disparagement that drove many West Virginians to vote for Trump. Maybe that’s something liberal filmmakers should take a look at objectively.

As it is this is as fun a movie as I’ve seen this summer and after a season of bloated blockbusters and over-hyped disappointments it’s a pleasure to just sit back and enjoy a movie that you don’t have to think about but just have fun with. This has the makings of a sleeper hit if it gets marketed right; sadly, that doesn’t appear to have been the case. A lot of moviegoers don’t know much about this movie whose trailer wasn’t much seen in theaters or on television. Hopefully enough will catch on that this is a fun movie that is everything that a summer movie should be. That should be enough to call an audience out of the heat and into the multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of material that is right in Soderbergh’s wheelhouse.  The film is blessed with clever writing and a terrific soundtrack.
REASONS TO STAY: Rural Southerners might find the stereotypes offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some crude comments as well as a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tatum and Keough both co-starred in Magic Mike, also directed by Soderbergh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baby Driver
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Sidemen: Long Road to Glory

Megan Leavey


Megan and Rex are on the job.

(2017) True Life War Drama (Bleecker Street) Kate Mara, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Geraldine James, Common, Edie Falco, Will Patton, Ramon Rodriguez, Shannon Tarbet, Miguel Gomez, Jonathan Howard, George Webster, Corey Johnson, Sam Keeley, Catherine Dyer, Melina Matthews, Jonah Bowling, Parker Sawyers, Victoria Budkey. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

 

We all know who man’s best friend is; the loyal and beloved canine. Dogs not only act as companions when we get home from work, they also work with us as service dogs, drug sniffing dogs and in the military, bomb-sniffing dogs. Their sensitive noses can detect things the human nose can’t.

If you told this to Megan Leavey (Mara) back in 2000, she likely wouldn’t have cared. Adrift in a fog of alcohol and grief for her childhood best friend who had recently passed away due to a drug overdose, she lives with her mother (Falco) who cheated on Megan’s dad Bob (Whitford) with his former best friend (Patton), a chronically unemployed drunk whom Megan is well on the way to emulating. Directionless, she decides to join the Marines mainly to get out of a town that she sees no future for herself in.

As anyone who has been in the military will tell you, your problems follow you into the armed forces after you enlist. Megan gets wasted while off-duty and does something unmentionable, getting her in hot water again. As punishment, she is sent to clean out the dog kennels where the dogs who are being trained to sniff out bombs are being trained with their handlers.

Megan has trouble relating to people but for some reason the relationship between the handlers and their dogs – personified by Andrew Dean (Felton), a legend in the Corps and an unusually compassionate guy who helps Megan find her way. After pestering Gunny (Common), the commander of the K9 training unit, to get accepted into the K9 unit, she is finally given a dog to train – Rex, a German Shepherd who has bitten his former trainer hard enough to break his arm. Rex is aggressive, impulsive and difficult to control; like Megan I suppose it could be said he has trouble relating to people. The two outsiders slowly bond and eventually get shipped out to Iraq.

Megan, a tiny woman, gets little respect from her fellow handlers and from the soldiers whose lives she is to protect; the Marines is about as patriarchal an organization as you’re likely to find but Megan and Rex become very proficient at what they do, saving hundreds of lives before one mission in which….well, you’re going to have to watch the movie to find out.

Some time passes and Megan has been discharged from the Corps, returning to civilian life and once again she’s having difficulty relating to people. However this time she is coping with PTSD, understandable considering the high-stress job she did for the Corps overseas. She has pushed just about everyone in her life away from her, including Matt Morales (Rodriguez), a fellow handler whom she had been developing a relationship with in the Corps. Only her dad Bob remains and when a cause she can believe in is given to her, with her dad’s gentle prodding Megan steps back into life and fights as hard as she did not only in Iraq but to get to Iraq.

In many ways, this is like a Hollywood movie – and of course, it is a Hollywood movie – but the story is based on actual events. There is a real Megan Leavey (she appears in pictures during the end credits) and a real Rex. I don’t know if Mara captured the real Megan Leavey but she delivers a well-rounded performance that while not exceptional is enough to carry the movie nicely. Mara sometimes gets overshadowed by her sister Rooney but she’s a very talented actress in her own right who just needs the right role to really break out into the next level. This isn’t it but hopefully it will lead her to roles that can get her there.

Common is rapidly going from rapper slash actor to actor slash rapper; he channels Louis Gossett Jr. a little too much here (see An Officer and a Gentleman) but if I was going to have any actor channel Gossett, it would be Common. He has the military bearing to carry the role off; it surprises me somewhat that he didn’t have military experience himself or come from a military family. Just good acting I suppose but that tells me that the rapper is more than just a handsome guy who can rap; he is likely to have some terrific possibly Oscar-worthy performances in his future.

The best parts of the movie take place in Iraq; there is a great deal of tension throughout those sequences and even in the down time between missions we can see Megan opening up to Morales and letting him in. Before that however, the movie drags quite a bit; it feels like we’re waiting for something to happen but the filmmakers first have to go through the motion of getting us from point A to point B with stops at A.1, A.2, A.3 etc. etc. It’s a little too extended for my taste and I wish they could have condensed that part of the movie somewhat.

Cowperthwaite is best known for her documentary Blackfish which is also animal-centric. I’m a dog person so it was easy for me to get hooked on this movie; fellow dog lovers will also have the same ease in getting into the film. Film buffs might find this a bit overly sentimental but I suppose it can’t be helped; the subject matter revolves around the bond between Marine and dog and the reliance each has upon the other. It’s a strong message and while I don’t think that this movie necessarily presented it in the strongest light, it does a good enough job that make it worth seeking out among all the big budget summer blockbusters that dominate the cinematic landscape this time of year.

REASONS TO GO: The in-country sequences are the best in the film. The dogs are terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is pure Hollywood (in a negative way). Too much time is spent waiting for things to happen; much of the training sequences could have been lopped off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence, profanity, a little bit of sensuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Mara and the real Megan Leavey grew up in the suburbs of New York City.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Max
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Most Hated Woman in America

The Lost City of Z


Charlie Hunnam suffers some slings and arrows.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street/Amazon) Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, Angus Macfadyen, Clive Francis, Pedro Coello, Matthew Sunderland, Johann Myers, Aleksandar Jovanovic, Elena Solovey, Bobby Smalldridge, Tom Mulheron, Daniel Huttlestone, Nathaniel Bates Fisher, Franco Nero, Louise Parker. Directed by James Gray

 

As a species we have an urge to make known the unknown, to travel to uncharted places and make them charted. We also have a yen to leave a legacy, something that cannot be taken away from us no matter what life brings us afterwards.

Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) was such a man. A British army officer at the turn of the 20th century, he chafed in a career that was stalled due not to his own devices but because of his father’s indiscretions. Finding himself at a crossroads, he accepts a commission from the Royal Geographic Society to chart the area near the Bolivia and Brazil border to mediate a dispute between the two countries but not for nothing also to keep the flow of rubber to British industry.

Taking with him his assistant Henry Costin (Pattinson) he discovers a mysterious and alluring wilderness of rich culture and danger. The natives aren’t exactly pleased to see him and they show their displeasure with blow darts and arrows, forcing the intrepid crew into piranha-infested waters. More importantly for Percy’s future, he discovers some artifacts – pottery shards and such – of a civilization rumored to have been extremely advanced and from which the modern natives were descended. They inhabited a vast city which Fawcett referred to as Z (pronounced Zed by the English) and when he returned home he spoke about it. The results were not scientific curiosity but outright disbelief and ridicule. The British intelligentsia couldn’t believe the “savages” capable of any sort of advanced civilization.

Fawcett wants to return and find his lost city but World War I intervenes. When he finally goes a second time, he brings along James Murray (Macfadyen), a veteran of Arctic expeditions whose reputation allows the financing to fall in place but Murray is woefully unprepared for tropical conditions leading to a frustrating end of the expedition. Furious at the RGS for taking Murray’s side, Fawcett quits in disgust and raises the capital himself to mount a third expedition, this time taking his grown son Jack (Holland) with him. The results of that expedition would evolve Percy from laughingstock to legend.

Gray is a director with the kind of visual sense that characterize directors like Zhang Yimou and Werner Herzog. The movie is beautiful, mysterious, and breathtaking. When the first expedition is under attack, Gray shoots it in a way that the audience can feel the arrows whizzing by and the panic setting in as the positions of their attackers are hidden by the dense forest. This may be the most beautiful movie from a cinematography standpoint that you’ll see this year or maybe any other; cinematographer Darius Khondji should be given all the praise in the world for his efforts.

The script is lyrically written and the characters are all fleshed out nicely, giving the actors a great deal to work with. Sienna Miller, as Fawcett’s ahead-of-her-time wife with feminist leanings does an amazing job; you can see her inner spark slowly dimming over the course of the movie as she realizes that her husband, who had encouraged her independence, didn’t fully mean it and that she had in many ways wasted  much of her time on a man who was never there, although to her credit the real Nina Fawcett never gave up hope for her husband and son even when the rest of the world did.

The one tragic flaw of the movie is Hunnam. On paper he seems an ideal choice for the role; dashing, handsome and patrician. He never really creates a sense of Fawcett’s obsession; he thunders like a bull elephant from time to time but he doesn’t really pack the screen presence needed to really make the part memorable. It is interesting to note that Brad Pitt was at one time attached to the role but couldn’t make it work in his schedule; I think Pitt might have realized another Oscar nomination (and maybe a win) had he gotten the part. Hunnam is merely adequate which is a shame. It also should be said that Pattinson, nearly unrecognizable in a full beard and an actor I’ve never really connected with, delivers a superb performance here.

The fate of Percy Fawcett has been the subject of much speculation over the decades and the book this is based on presents one theory which is hinted at (but not shown in too much detail) onscreen. It is also worth noting that in recent years evidence has been discovered, not far from where Fawcett was last seen, of a vast network of roads and settlements that might just be Fawcett’s Lost City of Z. I am sure that wherever Fawcett is, he is smiling. I think he is likely smiling about this motion picture about his life as well. It is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out on the big screen, where it most deserves to be seen. This is a real-life adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most beautifully photographed films you’ll ever see. The subject matter is fascinating. The era is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Hunnam is a bit too low-key in the lead role. The movie is a tiny bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a bit of violence (some of it involving war violence), brief profanity and some native nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holland had to wear a fake mustache for the movie as he was unable to grow one of his own.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fitzcarraldo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 2017 Florida Film Festival coverage commences!