12 Strong


Chris Hemsworth to the rescue!

(2018) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Austin Hébert, Austin Stowell, Ben O’Toole, Kenneth Miller, Kenny Sheard, Jack Kesy, Rob Riggle, William Fichtner, Arshia Mandavi, Elsa Pataky, Marie Wagenman, Allison King, Samuel Kamphuis, Lauren Myers. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig

 

After the attacks of 9-11, the military was caught a bit disorganized and flat-footed. Who do we attack? There was no geo-political entity that one could say “There! If we fight them, we can keep from having more terrorist attacks on the United States.” It wasn’t like Pearl Harbor; we knew who did it and we knew who had to pay.

It is true that a group of Marines – 12 of ‘em – went into Afghanistan early in 2012 to link up with the Afghan Northern Alliance and take down some Taliban baddies. While the ads for the film hysterically said that if we didn’t win this battle that there would be MORE terrorist attacks (there’s no evidence to suggest that was true) there’s no doubt that the men who went into Afghanistan only to find out that the terrain required horses rather than trucks and jeeps – and only one of them knew how to ride – were heroic, credits to the military and to their country.

Hemsworth has become a dependable star from the Thor films to other appearances. Here he shows off that he can be a badass without a magic hammer and his charisma and charm still stand him in good stead even when the film is dead serious. It helps that he has a fine support cast behind him, including Shannon who gets a rare non-villainous role.

While the movie felt more like a recruitment poster than entertainment at times, it still accomplishes the latter goal for the most part at least. While I thought it was a little long and may have been guilty of doing an inappropriate victory dance when we’re still fighting the same bloody war sixteen years (as of this writing) and counting afterwards, it at least will get American hearts beating and American chests pounded by American fists. Military lovers, have at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth continues to develop into a solid leading man.
REASONS TO STAY: Many times the film didn’t feel as authentic as others covering the war did.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s lots of war violence and plenty of profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers in the film; a Marine before he became a noted actor, Riggle actually served under the real Max Bowers at approximately the same time period the film is set in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Winter Brothers

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Spectre


No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

(2015) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman, Tenoch Huerta, Adriana Paz, Domenico Fortunato, Brigitte Millar, Lara Parmiani. Directed by Sam Mendes

The past has a way of surfacing when we least expect it. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant memory we’d forgotten. Other times, our sins come back to haunt us in ways we could never possibly expect.

With the carnage of Skyfall behind him (there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen that movie so quick, go see it before reading on), James Bond (Craig) finds himself in Mexico City several months later during the Dia de los muertos celebration. He is after a terrorist who has plans to set off bombs somewhere in the city, but Bond has other plans. Before sending most of the men in the room making plans to end the lives of innocents to kingdom come, he overhears plans to meet with someone called the Pale King. As is the wont around James Bond, buildings are blown up, a chase takes place through the crowded streets of Mexico City and a fight ensues on a helicopter which narrowly avoids crashing into the crowd.

The trouble is, Bond wasn’t authorized to do any of this or even be in Mexico. The new M (Fiennes) is already having issues with C (Scott), the head of MI-5 who has recently merged with MI-6 and is now in charge, and who is threatening on dismantling the double 0 program and replacing it with the Nine Eyes directive – the combined surveillance material from the nine largest agencies in the world, including the intelligence communities of the United States, Russia, China and other nations. Only South Africa remains a holdout.

Given the ruthlessness of C, it isn’t any surprise when a terrorist attack in South Africa changes their vote. These events, Bond deduces, are related to his own chase of the Pale King. After seducing the widow (Bellucci) of the assassin, Bond tracks down an old nemesis whose daughter Madeleine Swann (Seydoux) holds the key to a sinister criminal organization known as SPECTRE – and it’s mysterious leader (Waltz) who has a connection with Bond’s past – in more than one sense.

This has every element that makes Bond films so entertaining; a debonair and cool as a cucumber spy, gorgeous women, mind-blowing gadgets, absolutely amazing action and stunt sequences and exotic locations. Well, it’s missing one element – a great theme song, but Sam Smith delivered an absolutely atrocious song that may go down as one of the worst of any Bond film ever – and there have been some absolute turkeys, although the vast majority of Bond themes have been fabulous.

Craig in his fourth film inhabits the role, and while he is contracted for a fifth film (which the ending sets up very nicely), he has said in interviews that he wouldn’t mind finishing out his run here. I think he may want to rethink that; this isn’t his best performance as Bond (Skyfall is) and he might want to go out on a higher note than this.

Part of the problem is similar to what plagued Quantum of Solace – it simply doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by the film before it. While this movie is much better than Quantum, it’s also no Skyfall and that isn’t a knock at all; Skyfall is in my opinion second only to Goldfinger in terms of great Bond movies. Sacrilege to some, I grant you, but that’s how I see it.

While Craig is ice cold through most of this, Waltz as the villain whose name I won’t reveal here is simply put the best villain of the Craig era and maybe the best other than Auric Goldfinger in the whole franchise. Waltz as…he who shall not be named….is as urbane as Bond, has a deadly edge to him and is certifiably insane, but not in a “Look at me I’m Napoleon” manner but in a quiet, serious “I’m going to do something spectacularly evil” way. You have no doubt that Waltz’ character is capable of conjuring up absolutely horrific mayhem and is quite willing to see it through.

We get to explore Bond’s relationships with his team, mainly Whishaw as Q, Harris as Moneypenny and Fiennes as M. There is a cameo by Judi Dench as the previous M whose posthumous message sends Bond careening off to Mexico, and we get a sense of Bond’s loyalty. He doesn’t trust anyone really, but one senses he trusted M – and not the new one, necessarily.

The stunts here are as good as ever – the Mexico City sequence is worth the price of admission alone – and while the gadgets aren’t as gee-whiz as in past years, the best line of the movie comes when Q hands Bond a watch and Bond asks “And what does this do?” Q responds with a droll “It tells the time.”

The movie feels like it’s cramming a little bit too much plot in; I don’t know that we needed to go all over the globe to finally end up in futuristic volcanic lair that we don’t really get to see much of but is apparently immense. They had to conjure up the largest explosion in movie history in order to…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t end He Who Shall Not Be Named’s nefarious plans.

Don’t get me wrong – this is thoroughly entertaining and certainly will keep Bond fans more than happy, although the critical reaction has been disappointing. I do hope Craig does do one more film and finishes his time in the franchise on a better note than this. It’s a good movie, but not a great one. I think Craig has one more great Bond film in him.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Waltz is the best villain of the Craig era. Continues the return to the iconic 60s Bond films.
REASONS TO STAY: A little on the busy side. Sam Smith’s song is terrible.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some disturbing images, sexual innuendo and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At age 50 during filming, Bellucci is the oldest Bond girl to appear in the franchise by twelve years (Honor Blackman was 38 when she filmed Goldfinger).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You Only Live Twice
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Veteran

blackhat


Wei Tang is waiting for Chris Hemsworth to finish his phone call.

Wei Tang is waiting for Chris Hemsworth to finish his phone call.

(2014) Thriller (Universal/Legendary) Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, Leehorn Wang, Holt McCallany, Andy On, Ritchie Coster, Christian Borle, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Tyson Chak, Brandon Molale, Danny Burstein, Archie Kao, Abhi Sinha, Jason Butler Harner, Manny Montana, Spencer Garrett, Shi Liang, Kan Mok, Sophia Santi Directed by Michael Mann

Cyber crime isn’t just science fiction anymore; it’s a fact of daily life. Between the hacking of Sony and Target, our private information is at risk nearly every hour of every day. So too is the private information of corporations – and governments. And all of it can be manipulated for the benefit of a greedy soul with a computer and an idea.

When a hacker causes a Chinese nuclear facility to explode, it’s a tragedy. When the same hacker infiltrates the Chicago commodities market, them’s fighting words as far as the U.S. is concerned. A joint task force is convened with Chinese military officer Chen Dawai (Wang) and FBI agent Carol Burnett…err, Barrett (Davis). When the code used to hack both institutions turns out to be familiar to Dawai, he recommends that the man who co-authored the software with Dawai himself – one Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth) who was Dawai’s college roommate at Stanford – be released from jail for the cybercrimes he’s committed.

Hathaway realizes quickly that the guy they’re chasing is basically using his own software to get into very difficult hacks; the software that the hacker has authored is like a blunt force trauma, whereas Hathaway’s is more like a rapier wound. However, the hacker (van Wageningen) who is one Hawaiian shirt away from living in his mom’s basement, has hired a vicious terrorist named Kassar (Coster) to kill anyone who is in the way or no longer of use. And the point of all of this? Let’s just say that the Tin Man would be thrilled.

Michael Mann has always been a director who has exemplified style over substance and sometimes when that style is cool enough, he can get away with treating the substance as an afterthought. What would seem to be a fairly crucial movie about the effect of hackers and cybercrime on all of us and how vulnerable we are as nations to hackers is almost non-existent here.

Hemsworth who is a pretty great action hero is wasted in this role. It’s not that he can’t play smart; it’s just that he’s playing a guy who can pick up a gun as easily as program a computer virus…or hack into an NSA super-decryption program, which he does at one point – because the NSA won’t allow a convicted hacker to access it, particularly with Chinese military officers in tow. Of course, the knowledge that the guy they’re chasing has already caused one nuclear plant to meltdown might at least give them pause to work with the FBI agent, no? Maybe not.

And therein lies one of the main problems with the movie – the script. There are so many lapses in logic it’s hard to know where to begin. For example, why would anyone parole a hacker who has already shown a lack of respect for authority to chase down another hacker, particularly when the NSA has plenty of computer geniuses available at a moment’s notice? Sure, he co-wrote the code of the software that was used, but still, other than for dramatic purposes there is simply no reason to use a blackhat in this situation. Maybe the Bad Hacker has a personal score to settle with Hathaway, in which case by all means, use that as a selling point, but don’t pee on your audience and tell them it’s raining. Besides, it staggers the imagination that the guy is apparently an unstoppable killing machine in addition to being a computer genius. Are there any computer experts you know who spend time on the firing range, or in hand-to-hand combat training?

And when they get to cities they don’t know – like Jakarta or Shanghai – Hathaway is able to navigate through labyrinthine city streets to get to exactly where he needs to go without fail. Or does he have a GPS chip in his head?

The film has been cast with some fairly well-known Chinese actors in an effort to appeal to Chinese audiences who are quickly becoming a very large slice of the box office pie. However, Wei Tang – who is absolutely stunning and a terrific actress – is essentially shoehorned in so that Hathaway has someone to bed. The relationship at no time feels authentic, it’s just a con who hasn’t seen a woman in awhile getting lucky and for her part, she seems much smarter than to fall into a relationship with someone who is likely going back to prison. And to make her the sister of his ex-roommate and close friends – awk-ward.

A word about the score; it’s annoying, a kind of electronic noodling that reminds you that there’s someone trying to be sophisticated at the synthesizer. It’s so bad that one of the composers credited to the movie, Harry Gregson-Williams, has gone so far to post on his Facebook page that almost none of the score was his. I would have done the same thing, if I were him.

Like all Michael Mann movies, blackhat looks terrific. Lots of beautifully shot cityscapes, plenty of shots of Hathaway staring thoughtfully into the distance past urban wastelands and other thought-provoking vistas. But like a lot of his more recent movies, the style only goes so far and can’t hide the sorry fact that there’s nothing of substance here. While you get the sense that Mann and the writers did their homework when it comes to the computer hacking aspect, they could have used a remedial course in storytelling. Even the presence of Viola Davis, one of the finest actresses in Hollywood at the moment (and who does a yeoman job of trying her best) can’t save this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Typically cool cinematography for a Mann film. Seems fairly authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Muddled and often hard to follow. Large gaps in logic. Moviemaking by committee. Annoying score.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language throughout with occasional bouts of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 3,000 extras were used for the movie’s climactic scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Net
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Wedding Ringer

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom


Welcome to sunny Robben Island.

Welcome to sunny Robben Island.

(2013) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto, Fana Mokoena, Simo Mogwaza, Thapelo Mokoena, Gys de Villiers, Robert Hobbs, Carl Beukes, A.J. van der Merwe, Andre Jacobs, Nomfusi Gotyana, Michelle Scott. Directed by Justin Chadwick

One of the most influential and beloved figures of the 20th century would have to be Nelson Mandela. The South African leader was imprisoned for 27 years and became the poster boy for South African oppression under the government of apartheid but also a symbol of hope for the South African people. His recent passing set off a wave of mourning and celebrations of his life not only throughout South Africa but around the world. However despite his notoriety many Americans aren’t all that familiar with the details of his story.

Mandela (Elba) started out as a lawyer who merely wanted to practice law in his native land. He was showing some success at it, unafraid to stand up to white accusers of black innocents. This didn’t endear him to the white establishment but it did catch the attention of the fledgling African National Congress, an organization that looked to lobby for the rights of the black majority in the white-dominated South African government. Mandela wasn’t especially interested in politics, to be honest.

However soon it became clear that the laws of South Africa were becoming more and more repressive as apartheid began to be codified as a way of life. Mandela felt he had no choice but to become involved politically and it turned out that he was a natural leader and orator. This definitely didn’t endear him to the white establishment but it did catch the attention of Winnie Madikizela (Harris) whom he would later marry.

However their time together was short. Not long after they got married, a peaceful protest at the Sharpsville police barracks turned into a massacre as panicked police officers opened fire on a crowd of protesters who wished to turn themselves in for arrest for not carrying the mandatory paperwork all black South Africans were required to carry at all times. Mandela and the other leaders of the ANC, including Walter Sisulu (Kgoroge) and Ahmed Kathrada (Moosa) realized that non-violent tactics weren’t working; they only brought on further repression and worse still, deadly violence.

The ANC went on a relentless bombing campaign, destroying edifices that symbolized the oppression of the white South African government. Their members went underground, chased by the police until at last they were eventually caught and sentenced to hard labor on Robben Island, the most notorious of South African prison complexes. The court could have sentenced them to death but knew that would lead to outright rioting and rebellion, so they were sentenced to life in prison.

From inside prison, the group and particularly Mandela became symbols even as Winnie continued to lead the fight from outside until she herself was arrested and subjected to brutality and torture. After being released, the embittered Winnie became much more radicalized and her vision of the future of South African began to drift away from that of her husband.

International and internal pressure eventually forced Mandela’s release and this forced the South African government in turn to relax apartheid and hold free elections which the ANC participated in as a political party and Mandela himself as a presidential candidate. He would defeat the incumbent President De Klerk (de Villiers) who ironically had negotiated to free Mandela and the rest of the ANC. Mandela was faced by anger and outrage directed at the white South Africans by the blacks – much of it led by his own wife, who came out against his call for reconciliation and forgiveness. Uniting the two races as one strong country might have been the toughest battle Mandela would face.

There’s no doubt that Mandela is a role model and a hero of mine. There is no doubting his courage or his convictions; I can’t imagine most politicians these days willing to be imprisoned for their beliefs can you? Nevertheless, I’m not sure if this film, based on the South African leader’s own autobiography does his legacy justice.

This is essentially a two-person movie; Elba and Harris. Harris has a difficult role to perform; Winnie here is portrayed as an initially supportive and idealistic woman who turns bitter and cynical as the movie progresses; it’s not the kind of change that makes audiences love you. Still, she does a fine job at showing Winnie’s inner strength and fire. However, her performance is sadly being largely overlooked.

That’s not the case for Elba who has been garnering some Oscar buzz for his although given the strong competition this year for Best Actor I’m thinking he has an outside chance at best for a nomination. Still, it’s a pretty incredible performance considering that Elba looks absolutely nothing like Mandela who was always fairly thin and scrawny whereas Elba is a burly, muscular man. They also don’t resemble each other facially. Elba however captures the great man’s mannerisms and speech patterns. When you close your eyes you could swear you were listening to Mandela himself.

Considering the events of his life and that for 27 years of it he spent in prison, there is a sense of compression with the movie as if we’re just settling lately on momentous events and giving them short shrift. In truth, Mandela merits a mini-series at the very least to cover all the things that happened both to him and South Africa in general. Still, you get a good sense of the events that surrounded him and shaped his point of view.

I would have hoped that a movie about Mandela would have been more inspiring than this one does. I get the sense that Chadwick was at a loss as to how to handle the Robben Island sequences. He does show some of the things the guards did but for the most part you don’t get a sense of how hard the imprisonment was on Mandela other than a single sequence in which Mandela gets a telegram that his son was killed in a car crash. He wasn’t given permission to leave the island to attend the funeral and you can feel his despair. Certainly Mandela must have had sleepless nights, self-doubt, despair. We don’t get a sense of that other than that one scene.

This is one of those might-have-been movies. It certainly could have been a triumph but unfortunately it doesn’t really achieve that feeling at any point. You do get a sense of admiration about the man and perhaps it’s unfortunate timing literally opening in limited release a week before the great man passed away and opening wide a few weeks after that has something to do with us not being able to get past that. After all, we’ve been witness to many heartfelt and detailed tributes to the man in recent weeks. This movie doesn’t really measure up to them.

REASONS TO GO: Idris Elba gives a powerful performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks fire. Loses focus during the Robben Island sequences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexuality, some foul language and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: News of Mandela’s death took place just moments before the film’s London premiere. His daughters Zindzi and Zenani were given the option of having the premiere postponed but chose to go ahead as planned. The news was broken to those in attendance at the conclusion of the screening by producer Anant Singh.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winnie Mandela

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: American Hustle

Iron Man 3


Robert Downey Jr. mans the Iron Man customer service phone line.

Robert Downey Jr. mans the Iron Man customer service phone line.

(2013) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Wang Xuequi, Paul Bettany (voice), William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Dale Dickey, Shaun Toub, Bill Maher, Joan Rivers, Sarah Burkhardt. Directed by Shane Black

When you’re an iron man, the question is important – is it the suit that makes you, or do you make the suit? That’s the question that Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man is forced to confront in the third installment of the Marvel Superhero film series.

We begin with a prologue in Switzerland back in the ’90s when Tony Stark was just Tony Stark, the boy wonder engineer who was one of the most brilliant weapons designers on this ol’ planet Earth. He seduces one scientist – Maya Hansen (Hall) – and blows off another, Aldrich Killian (Pearce). These acts will have, as Tony narrates in voice over (which only appears at the beginning and end of the movie) a profound consequence on what is about to happen.

These days, Tony Stark is a mess. He has come back from New York after the alien invasion of The Avengers with nothing less than Post Traumatic Stress Disease. He can’t sleep, spending nights in his workshop building all sorts of new sets of armor (he’s up to his 42nd iteration) and driven into panic attacks when his experiences in New York are discussed – or even when the mere name of the city is mentioned.

Pepper Potts (Paltrow) has moved in and their relationship has become one of the few touchstones of Tony’s chaotic life but even she is frustrated, feeling like he’s slipping away from her. To make matters worse, there’s a terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin (Kingsley) who is setting off bombs all over the world, although they can’t find any bomb fragments to figure out what kind of devices he’s using that set off temperatures of over 3000 degrees.

To make matters worse, Aldrich has shown back up, the head of a think tank called AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) that has made him a wealthy man. No longer the long-haired nebbish geek, he’s confident and good-looking, capturing Pepper’s attention and Stark Head of Security Happy Hogan’s (Favreau) ire. However, Happy is caught up in one of the Mandarin’s explosions at Graumann’s Chinese Theater and is gravely injured.

Now it’s on. Tony goes on TV essentially daring the Mandarin to come get him – and even gives him his address. The Mandarin obliges him, taking out Stark’s Malibu in him just as Dr. Hansen comes to warn him to get out. He manages to save Pepper and Dr. Hansen but is trapped in the rubble which falls into the sea. He is presumed dead.

Of course he’s not; his armor, with a flight plan preset by Jarvis (Law), Tony’s computerized butler/assistant, takes him to Tennessee. He meets a young boy (Simpkins) who idolizes him, alternately helping him get back together even though he has nothing, and setting off new panic attacks. Tony really does need to get together; the Mandarin has plans not only for taking out the President (Sadler) but for perpetuating eternal terrorism and counter-response. Tony is far away from his armor and his friends in the Avengers. He will have to take on the Mandarin with just his intellect and his ingenuity. Will it be enough?

This is the first Iron Man movie not directed by Jon Favreau who still appears as an actor however, which he likened to being a grandfather who gets to play with the baby without having to change its diapers. Newcomer Shane Black had previously worked with Downey on the critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang as well as having written the Lethal Weapon series. Having already scored big numbers in international box office before even opening in the United States, this movie is poised to become this year’s box office champion and quite possibly the highest grossing film of the Iron Man series.

There’s good reason for it. While the tone has changed somewhat, the movie still retains much of what has made the series so successful – the dynamic special effects, the clever gadgets, Tony Stark’s irreverent attitude and the epic sweep. It also puts a focus squarely on Tony Stark which Favreau also did – and that’s a wise thing. When you have an actor the caliber of Downey, you’re crazy not to take full advantage of him – and Black ain’t crazy.

Stark is one of the most complex, layered characters in all of comics and that has translated to the film version. He’s arrogant, sure – but there’s a vulnerability to him here that is so much more evident than in the first two films. He is battling insecurity – when you encounter a living God and a living legend, it’s easy to develop an inferiority complex. He is terrified of losing the one relationship that matters to him, the only one that has since his father passed. Deep down, Tony is a generous, heroic guy – but he doesn’t have all the social niceties developed. Downey brings all of these aspects to life and integrates them nicely. Tony Stark is as fully realized a character as we’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.

His antagonists are not nearly as well-realized which is often a problem in superhero movies, particularly those that have become franchises. Kingsley has great fun with the Mandarin, giving him a bizarre accent that accents certain syllables (i.e. “teach-urrrrrrr”) that make him sound like a menacing idiot. This is explained late in the movie to my satisfaction however – but it still is a bit off-putting at first. Pearce is an underrated actor who is as versatile as they come. Some critics have huffed that they don’t understand how a snub in an elevator can turn a nerdy scientist type into a psychotic megalomaniac but they must have fallen asleep during the movie as Killian has a soliloquy which partially explains his change – and one gets the sense that his marble bag wasn’t quite full to begin with.

Paltrow hasn’t really gotten to run with the Pepper Potts character much – and she doesn’t get to here although she does have a couple of good scenes, and she does get to don the armor – well, Tony has the armor cover her to protect her as their home is buffeted by rockets and machine gun fire from attack helicopters. Still, the character is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and she has a mind and a will of her own. She makes a formidable girlfriend for Tony, although that aspect is still yet to be explored fully. Then again, the movie is about the superhero, otherwise it would have been called Pepper Potts 3.

Cheadle and Favreau don’t get much screen time either, although both make the most of what they get. As I mentioned earlier, this is very much a Tony Stark movie even more in a lot of respects than Iron Man, although there are oodles of different armors which all come to play in the climactic battle (the website, which you can reach by clicking on the picture above, has details about some of them). For fans of the comic book, some of the story line borrows from the Extremis storyline although there are some significant changes.

The movie is the longest of the trilogy and might have benefitted from a bit of judicial trimming in the middle third. The final battle, which consists mostly of Tony’s suits flying about battling super soldiers infected with Extremis who are super strong and can shoot fiery breath from their mouths is spectacular but similarly overlong.

The reason to go see this is not just the eye candy however, although there is plenty of that. It’s Downey and a pretty dang well-written script. While I personally think the first Iron Man was better than this on a number of different levels, this one is a slight improvement on Iron Man 2 and while there isn’t a fourth film on the immediate horizon (word comes that Disney is in negotiation with Downey to extend his contract which expired after this film – if not just for future Avengers movies) the credits clearly state that Tony Stark will return. I for one look forward to it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Explores whether the hero is the suit or in the suit.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little too long; could have used a bit of editing.

FAMILY VALUES:  Superhero violence and some sexually suggestive content. Fine for all but the very youngest comic book fans in your household.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dragon tattoos on Aldrich Killian’s chest are actually drawings of Fin Fang Foom, an Iron Man villain from the comic books.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; the movie is getting solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 2

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Sightseers

The Gatekeepers


Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

(2012) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom, Simon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meier, Yassir Arafat, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by Dror Moreh

It is hard to watch certain films without one’s political beliefs coloring them and one with a subject as touchy as the Israel/Palestine conflict it’s almost unavoidable. Nearly everyone has a point of view; the Israeli government has attempted to be reasonable in the face of ongoing Palestinian terrorism and refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation and therefore they are entitled to protect themselves, or the Israeli government has oppressed a nearly defensive Palestinian minority and occupied their sovereign territory repeatedly attempting to crush their wills through intimidation and murder.

The Shin Bet is Israel’s anti-terrorism defense agency. They are more or less our Homeland Security Agency on steroids; they operate both domestically and internationally and have a broad mandate. What they do is essentially cloak and dagger stuff; ferreting out information through interrogation, infiltration and reputedly, through torture. They are the most shadowy of Israel’s three intelligence agencies; the Mossad (their version of the CIA) and the Aman (military intelligence) being the other two.

It is said that the Shin Bet is not just an enactor of policy but a shaper of it as well and there is no doubt that the heads of the Shin Bet have had the ears of the Israeli prime ministers through the years so it is a pretty big deal when six of the last seven of them (not including current director Yoram Cohen) consented to sit down for extensive interviews for this documentary. The six are Avraham Shalom (1981-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1994), Carmi Gillon (1995-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005) and Yuval Diskin (2006-2011).

That these are tough, unsparing men goes without saying. Most of them have a good deal of military background and like many in the military/intelligence community in Israel, they look that they could beat up a grizzly with one hand and tear a great white shark jaw off with the other. Still, there is at least an intellectual curiosity in each of them and a certain amount of wisdom.

Through their eyes we see Israel’s history basically from the Six Days War in 1967 until recently. Several events in Israel’s history are examined, from the Intifada to the hijacking of Bus 300 to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It is the latter event that proves to be a watershed event in the conflict between Israel and the PLO. Rabin had just signed the Oslo Accords and was working to establish a lasting peace in Palestine. Then, as Gillon put it, a punk with a gun decided to change the course of history and in doing so derailed the peace process, which may well have been what conservative elements in Israel wanted all along.

The general consensus of the six directors is that this event forestalled the peace process and might have been the worst failure on the part of the Shin Bet (an operative posing as a radical extremist apparently knew the assassin and of his plans but thought that the plans weren’t serious). There is certainly a pretty good case that the attitudes of the Israeli government towards the peace process changed after that event which is very much what the assassin wanted to accomplish. The directors to a man felt that this put Israel and Palestine in a neverending spiral  of blood and tears which remains to this day.

I was surprised by the attitudes of these men. They are all very similar although they regularly criticize one another for how one thing or another is handled. I found them to be somewhat liberal which you would think would not be the case for the director of an intelligence agency dealing with terrorism; you would expect those sorts of men to be more conservative in timbre and perhaps they were when they first began their jobs.

There is a good deal of talking head kind of stuff here and all of it is in Hebrew so the subtitles flow and that can be static. Moreh breaks it up nicely with the nifty special effect of taking still photographs and digitally making them three dimensional, adding filmed recreations (mostly in black-and-white) giving the viewer more of a “you are there” feel. There is also as you might expect plenty of archival footage.

Some of the images can be pretty disturbing; of blown up busses and buildings and people so do be cognizant of that before heading to the theater. My other criticism is that I would have appreciated more insight into Israeli politics and the role these men had in it. Obviously this was initially meant for an Israeli audience and so there might have been familiarity with the events and processes involved but I felt a little lost in places.

It’s fairly chilling at times; these are men who had life and death decisions on their hands and clearly it affected some of them more than others, or at least more than they are willing to admit. This was one of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees this year and although it lost to Searching for the Sugar Man it deserved to be on the final ballot. I found it to be flawed but fascinating myself; it is certainly worth the effort to check it out and get a little bit more understanding of that conflict between those two parties which seems to be endless with no hope in sight of changing that.

REASONS TO GO: Insight into the inner workings of the Israeli intelligence, military and government agencies. Excellent 3D photographic effects.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit of the talking head variety. May rub conservative Israelis the wrong way.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few images of violence and some disturbing sequences although probably nothing worse than you’d see on a television news magazine program.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The head of the Shin Bet is the only publically known member of the organization.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100; you couldn’t ask for much better.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 5 Broken Cameras

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Core

Kill the Irishman


 

Kill the Irishman

Don’t get Ray Stevenson angry – he can fart flames!

(2008) Biodrama (Anchor Bay) Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Vinnie Jones, Paul Sorvino, Fionnula Flanagan, Laura Ramsey, Steve Schirripa, Linda Cardellini, Bob Gunton, Jason Butler Harner, Robert Davi. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh

 

Here, at last, is a movie for which the Irish lament “Danny Boy” is quite literally appropriate for – and the filmmakers showing restraint unheard-of in Hollywood actually don’t use it. That’s at least worth some respect.

Danny Greene (Stevenson) was an enforcer for the Cleveland Irish mob. In his heyday in the 70s, he and his partner John Nardi (D’Onofrio) fought a war against the Italian mob that was epic in its viciousness. In 1976 alone, 36 bombs exploded in the city as a direct result of the mob war.

He started off as a longshoreman rising up in the union. He eventually took over the leadership of the union (Merke) and would later be convicted of skimming funds from the membership. Once out of jail, he turned to crime as a full-time operation, working with Shondor Birns (Walken) but things go south. Greene requests a $75,000 loan to build a semi-legal drinking establishment; Birns entrusts the money to a runner who then proceeds to buy drugs with it, and is promptly caught by the police. Because Greene never received the cash, he refused to pay back the loan which had been paid for by the Gambino family, putting immense pressure on Birns.

Greene breaks away from the Italian mafia forming his own group mainly comprised of young guys of Irish descent, with Nardi as (kind of) their legitimizer. Greene is bombarded with several attempts on his life, including one where his home was hit by a bomb while he and his girlfriend were asleep. The house collapsed but Greene and his girlfriend survived, shielded by rubble.

Greene would attain legendary status in Cleveland. He often took care of those in need of cash in Cleveland’s Irish community and came out of every assassination attempt more or less unscathed. He became a darling in the Cleveland media and the bane of the Cleveland mafia’s existence. He also became an informant to the FBI.

This is based on a non-fiction book – loosely based I might add – that was written by a Cleveland police officer familiar with the case and with Greene (the fictionalized character based on the author is played by Val Kilmer in the film). That book was also turned into a documentary I haven’t seen yet, but the filmmakers here do a pretty credible job with it.

The cast is pretty spectacular for an indie, including Walken – curiously restrained as the racketeer who first came into conflict with Greene, and veterans Schirripa and Sorvino who have made careers out of playing Mafiosi doing stand-up jobs.

Stevenson, best known for his work on the HBO series “Rome” and for playing The Punisher in Punisher: War Zone (and doing both well) proves once again he is much more than an impressive physique. He catches both the larger than life aspect of Greene as well as his clever and sinister side. Greene was a complicated man as you can probably tell from the synopsis; he was equal parts folk hero, bullshit artist, criminal and killer. The movie tends to gloss over the killer part to focus on his folk hero standing; he is portrayed as a basically decent guy who just happened to kill people for a living.

This is an excellent cast top to bottom. Cardellini plays Greene’s wife and the mother of his kids in a role that could easily have been thankless but is given some sparkle by her performance, while Flanagan plays an old Irish woman who reminds Greene of his roots and isn’t afraid to stand up to the tough guy, to his amusement.

This takes a larger than life character and tries to compress him down into a two hour time frame which has its pros and cons. One of the cons is definitely that we really don’t see why Greene, who was so obviously bright and charismatic, went down the road of organized crime. It just kind of happens in the film and without any explanation. One scene depicting how he fell into it – or a montage if necessary – could have made for a bit more continuity.

Still, this is well worth watching. America has a fascination with criminals, from Jesse James to John Dillinger and Danny Greene could well end up having the same kind of cultural impact over time. He had a lot of blarney and a dark side as well, a combination that’s like catnip to our violence-obsessed culture. Although Greene considered himself as Irish first and foremost, he may well have been the perfect American anti-hero – living life on his own terms and by his own rules and the devil take the cost.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly stellar cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Glosses over some of the motivations as to why Greene got into crime.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, quite a bit of bad language and a helping heaping of nudity and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production shot at Tiger Stadium (Navin Field) in Detroit shortly before it was demolished.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an hour-long documentary on the real Danny Greene.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget. The movie probably finished just a bit below breaking even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wiseguys

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Savages