The True Memoirs of an International Assassin


Kevin James, badass!

Kevin James, badass!

(2016) Action Comedy (Netflix) Kevin James, Andy Garcia, Zulay Henao, Kim Coates, Ron Rifkin, Maurice Compte, Rob Riggle, Leonard Earl Howze, Yul Vazquez, Andrew Howard, P.J. Byrne, Kelen Coleman, Jeff Chase, Katie Couric, G-Rod, Daniel Zacapa, Al Hamacher, Jordi Caballero, Lauren Shaw, Emilie Ullerup. Directed by Jeff Wadlow

 

Some things in life are less likely than others; Donald Trump having an extramarital affair, for example – with Rosie O’Donnell. Or PETA opening up a barbecue restaurant.

Right up there with those is Kevin James morphing into an action hero, although he has done a few action films in his time. The portly sitcom star is actually fairly fit for a man his size, but he certainly doesn’t fit the mold of a classic action hero.

Still, he has a very likable screen persona and plenty of charisma on both the big screen and small. He hasn’t always gotten great movies and good roles but he has always been a trooper and does his best even when the material is less than scintillating. Here he plays Sam Larson, a cubicle cowboy who dreams of being a bestselling author, but unlike most of us with such ambitions he’s actually doing something about it. He’s writing a James Bond-meets-Die Hard spy story in which the hero, Mason Carver a.k.a. The Ghost is his own alter ego. Sometimes when Sam gets stuck for inspiration, Mason Carver and the other characters in the scene stand around, twiddling their thumbs and waiting expectantly for direction – which may be a metaphor for what the actors in this film were doing.

His energetic and somewhat conniving E-Publisher (Coleman) thinks she’s got a winner on her hands when he submits the manuscript and promises not to change a word. In fact, she doesn’t – she adds one to the title though, changing The Memoirs of an International Assassin to The True Memoirs of an International Assassin and marketing it as biographical.

This infuriates not only Sam but his buddy Amos (Rifkin) who has been advising him on some of the finer points of international espionage and had urged him not to print certain aspects of Mason Carver’s exploits. During an interview with Katie Couric (herself) on Yahoo, Sam gets cold feet and runs out of the studio – and straight into the arms of kidnappers who turn out to be agents of El Toro (Garcia), a Venezuelan revolutionary. He wants the Venezuelan president (Coates) dead, and essentially tells Sam – who he believes is really The Ghost – that if the president isn’t murdered, Sam will be.

Of course, Sam gets arrested and brought before the President who also believes Sam is The Ghost – and urges him to kill drug kingpin Anton Masovich (Howard) who then kidnaps Sam and suggests he murders El Toro. Maybe Sam should just nuke Venezuela and be done with it, no? Well, that wouldn’t make for a very long movie so Sam, with the help of comely DEA agent Rosa Bolivar (Henao) he figures out a way to get out of this with his skin more or less intact but not everything here is on the up and up.

Incomprehensibly, this script ended up on the Black List of unproduced screenplays a couple of years ago, which leads me to believe that either this was extensively rewritten or the standards for quality of Black List screenplays has taken a serious hit. The plot is pretty pedestrian and has been done before and better in other films; in fact, this feels throughout like you’re watching a sitcom in which the Fonz plays an international spy. Or Ray Romano. Or Doug Heffernan (James’ character in King of Queens) for that matter.

The movie also suffers from really poor CGI throughout, from the explosion to the blood splatters. It all looks fake. To make matters worse, there are several running jokes – like various characters musing “Maybe he really is The Ghost” about Sam, or in the third act for some incomprehensible reason the filmmakers chose to pepper the soundtrack with Spanish language version of pop hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Once or twice is okay but it was a good five or six occasions. Brevity is the soul of wit; repetition doesn’t make a joke any funnier in general. Just sayin’.

Don’t get me wrong – there is some entertainment value here but it’s mainly due to James’ work. And let’s face it; compared to the Adam Sandler comedies that Netflix has released thus far, this is Mel Brooks-level work (and believe it or not, Sandler’s production company Happy Madison had nothing to do with this which was surprising to me considering how close Sandler and James are). Still, this is little more than a 90 minute time-killer that will have little more value than that to you. Me, I’d recommend that you wait for a movie that is more worthy of Mr. James’ talents.

REASONS TO GO: Kevin James is always engaging and likable.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a sitcom-like feel to this and some of the running jokes are pretty damn annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is a remake of the 1973 French action film Le Magnifique.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Passengers

Advertisements

Arrival (2016)


Amy Adams contemplates an interplanetary craft.

Amy Adams contemplates an interplanetary craft.

(2016) Science Fiction (Paramount) Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sangita Patel, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowski, Mark O’Brien, Jadyn Malone, Ruth Chiang, Anana Rydvald, Julia Scarlett Dan, Nathaly Thibault, Leisa Reid, Frank Fiola, Russell Yuen, Pat Kiely, Larry Day, Joe Cobden, Julian Casey, Carmela Nossa Guizzo, Andrew Shaver, Genevieve Sirois. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

 

We take language for granted. After all, despite the many languages on the planet, we are basically aware of all the various alphabets and pictographs that make up written language. We are also the same species and can communicate non-verbally if necessary. What happens when we encounter an alien species with whom we have no basis for communication?

Louise Banks (Adams) is a linguist teaching at a fairly well-known university. One day her class – already sparsely attended – is interrupted by the students all getting excited texts over the phone. At last Louise, watching her students abandon her classroom, finds a television set and discovers that an alien spaceship has arrived in Montana. As it later turns out, it is one of twelve positioned all over the world.

Of course, the big question is “what do they want?” When the military in the form of Colonel Weber (Whitaker) knocks at her door, she takes the opportunity. What scientist wouldn’t want to be among those making first contact with an alien race? Certainly not Ian Donnelly (Renner), a theoretical physicist who is also on the team whom Louise meets on the way to the landing site, although landing is perhaps a misnomer; the alien vessel floats majestically 28 feet above the ground. It’s not as if Louise has anything holding her at home, as she is completely alone. She often thinks about her teenage daughter Hannah who passed away of what appears to be cancer.

As it turns out, the aliens appear every 18 hours like clockwork but nobody has been able to communicate with them yet which is of course why Louise was brought in. The team enters the spaceship via a scissor lift which gets them to a certain point; after that the aliens thoughtfully manipulate gravity so the team can make it comfortably the rest of the way.

They appear behind a glass barrier with swirling white mist. The aliens, gigantic grey beings with seven limbs are dubbed “heptapods” as they somewhat resemble octopi with a missing limb. Louise discovers that the circular shapes that they conjure up in the mist is their written language. With eleven other scientific teams also working to make contact in places like Siberia, China and Venezuela, the scientists work overtime trying to interpret the alien language. Louise begins to make breakthroughs, understanding that the squiggly circles all represent concepts rather than letters of an alphabet.

However, differences in opinion over what the squiggly circles mean begin to raise tensions between the various nations. The Chinese are certain that the aliens are trying to give them a weapon and their leader, General Shang (Ma) has cut off communication with the other teams. The CIA type (Stuhlbarg) at the Montana site is inclined to believe the same thing. Now the race is to prove that the aliens are not out to start a war or destroy humanity utterly and it’s a race that Louise is not sure she can win.

This is based on the story “The Story of Your Life” written by scientist and science fiction author Ted Chiang and from what I understand the movie is remarkably faithful to the short story. Villeneuve went to great lengths to insure the scientific accuracy on his production which also deserves kudos. This is most definitely not for those who think sci-fi movies should be full of lasers and space battles and sleek spaceships. The spacecraft used here resembles a contact lens more than anything and is pretty much bare and featureless. Villeneuve purposely made the alien environment foggy and grey with almost no color whatsoever. Some might find that boring.

Those who like their sci-fi cerebral won’t find this boring. The concepts brought up by Chiang and Villeneuve include our perception of time, the importance of language, and of course our perspective on our place in the universe. There are also themes of loss, grief and faith. Villeneuve doesn’t really spoon-feed you anything; he sets you up with an idea and allows you to process it however you choose. Not everyone will like that; my lovely wife felt that she was condescended to although to be truthful I didn’t feel that way at all.

Adams who is already one of the top actresses in Hollywood today moves to another level here. Her Louise is surrounded by an air of sadness and regret. There is already much Oscar buzz around her performance here and she will certainly merit consideration for a nomination. It is a layered performance that is both emotional and smart. Roles that change the way you think about an actor are few and far between; this is one of them.

It is always refreshing to see a movie that really isn’t like any other. Sure, first contact films have been done in many different ways but none quite like this one. Denis Villeneuve has put forth a bold claim to being one of the best filmmakers of this era; his filmography certainly backs it up. Arrival may be the best movie the French-Canadian director has done and given what he has on his resume that’s saying something.

REASONS TO GO: The script is profound and thought-provoking. The filmmakers don’t skimp on the science. Adams gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Arrival shows out of the box thinking on nearly every level of filmmaking.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too cerebral for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some profanity is briefly uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Renner and Adams previously co-starred together in American Hustle.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Contact
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: All We Had

Snowden


Edward Snowden in the military.

Edward Snowden in the military.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Ben Chaplin, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Nicholas Rowe, Bhasker Patel, Patrick Joseph Bymes, Christy Meyer, Robert Firth, Edward Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

Edward Snowden remains one of the most controversial figures of our time. There are those who label him a hero while others loathe him as a traitor. He polarizes opinion like nobody else and there are those on both sides of the political aisle that would like to see him answer for his crimes of revealing the NSA’s program of secret surveillance of the American people.

The movie has had a bit of a checkered history; it has been delayed at least twice, once to complete some of the special effects and the other to avoid competition from the major blockbusters. Once the film was released, it got almost zero support from its distributor and came and went from the theaters with little fanfare. Did it deserve that kind of fate?

Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) is an idealistic young man whose ideals are somewhat conservative. He joins the military, wanting to serve his country but a badly broken leg puts an end to his military service. Instead, he’s recruited by the CIA to write code and serve his country in a different way. His mentor at the CIA, Corbin O’Brien (Ifans) takes a healthy interest in the young man’s career.

He also meets Lindsay Mills (Woodley), a free-spirited college student who supports herself through exotic dancing. The unlikely couple form a close bond and soon have a budding relationship, even though she’s as liberal as they come and he’s a staunch rock-ribbed conservative. He ends up writing programs that help root out terrorists and keep America safe.

Then, as he switches to the more lucrative consulting position at the NSA, he begins to discover some disturbing things. For example, the phone surveillance program he wrote is now targeting everybody and is gathering so much data the NSA has to build huge facilities to store it all. So despite having a beautiful home in Hawaii, a lucrative job and a bright future, he decides to blow the whistle on all this patently illegal material.

He sets up a meet with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) in Hong Kong. He is clearly paranoid, expecting to be grabbed by NSA agents or the local police at any moment. But once Poitras and Greenwald have a chance to examine the documents, they realize they have the story of the century on their hands. It is just a matter of convincing their editors to allow them to tell it.

How you’re going to receive this film is going to depend an awful lot on how you view Edward Snowden. If you see him as a vile traitor giving state secrets to the media, then you’ll hate this movie. If you think he’s a heroic whistleblower who tried to put the brakes on what was clearly a morally heinous policy, you’re more likely to like this movie. Know going in that Stone is clearly in the latter camp and really doesn’t offer any sort of alternative viewpoint. It seemed to me that most reviews followed the political line; conservative movie critics tended to give it lower scores, more liberal critics higher ones.

So I’m trying to be as objective as I can, but it is difficult to filter out one’s own precepts. Gordon-Levitt I think does a very credible job as Snowden, capturing the cadences of his speech nicely although in a much deeper register than the real Snowden speaks in. Snowden is in many ways not the most charismatic of men so it’s hard to fault Gordon-Levitt for being a bit dry here, but he does seem to capture Snowden’s essential personality.

The rest of the cast is pretty strong – Ifans is virtually unrecognizable – but a lot of the big names are in for what are essentially cameos. Most of the film revolves around Snowden, Lindsey and the journalists. Basically, that’s enough to keep my interest.

I can understand some questioning that the movie makes Snowden to be something of a saint. I don’t think he is and I don’t think that he himself is above questioning by the filmmaker. Poitras, whose documentary on the events here CITIZENFOUR won an Oscar, painted a much more balanced picture of Snowden and in the process, made him more relatable. The Snowden here is a little bit less so because of that and I think it does the film a disservice to go that route.

There are some pretty good moments throughout the movie – Snowden’s initial meeting with the journalists, the events of his smuggling the data out of the NSA facility (a conjectural scene since Snowden has yet to and probably never will reveal how he actually did it) and the end scene when Snowden speaks to the TED conference via satellite – and Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real Edward Snowden, who gets the last word in the film fittingly enough.

It’s a well-made film – you would imagine Stone would at least produce that – but it’s more than just that. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the state of things, whether the price of security is too high or whether liberty trumps that price. We’ve got a lot to think about as a society, much to demand from our leaders. Snowden reminds us that sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing.

REASONS TO GO: Gordon-Levitt really captures the cadences of Snowden’s speech. It has the taut atmosphere of a spy thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks any counter-argument to make it seem more fair-minded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gordon-Levitt’s second straight film based on an Oscar-winning documentary; the first was The Walk which was the dramatic account of the documentary Man on Wire.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CITIZENFOUR
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Jason Bourne


Matt Damon espies a Trump for President sign.

Matt Damon espies a Trump for President sign.

(2016) Spy Action (Universal) Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Styles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzenz Kiefer, Stephen Kunken, Ben Stylianou, Kaya Yuzuki, Matthew O’Neill, Lizzie Phillips, Paris Stangl, Matt Blair, Amy De Bruhn, Akie Kotabe, Robin Crouch, Gregg Henry, Ava Katharina Maria Hoeller. Directed by Paul Greengrass

 

It’s been nine years since the most recent Bourne movie and that’s a long time for a spy to be on the shelf. Can the franchise that was once set to overtake Bond in the spy market recover?

Jason Bourne (Damon) has been living off the grid, but that’s what happens when the CIA wants you dead. He’s been making a living doing underground fights in Macedonia which is essentially a one punch affair for the world’s most dangerous assassin. Maybe all the blows to the head in the first three movies have jarred something loose but he remembers his past now, all of it. And he remembers in particular a meeting with his father (Henry) just moments before he was assassinated and at about the time that he – then known as David Webb – was recruited for Treadstone.

But as his long-time ally Nicky Parsons (Stiles) says, just because he remembers everything doesn’t mean he knows everything and he’s clearly got a lot to learn and he’s gonna go find out what he needs to know. New CIA director Robert Dewey (Jones) has a lot of skeletons in his closet and he doesn’t want Bourne opening his closet door. He sends an operative known only as the Asset (Cassel) after Bourne and Parsons, which doesn’t bode well for either of them.

Dewey in the meantime has an agreement with tech billionaire Aaron Kalloor  (Ahmed) who made his billions with a Facebook-like social media site that hides a nefarious secret and Kalloor is about to come clean, something Dewey cannot allow. Working on Dewey’s team is Heather Lee (Vikander), a CIA analyst and computer expert who is figuring out that there is a game afoot, but the players are playing for keeps and may well be out of her league. She will be the wild card when the end game makes its inexorable appearance.

I left the theater feeling a sense of déjà vu and not in a good way. There were high hopes for this franchise; not only was it making monster profits but first director Doug Liman and then Greengrass created bold, kickass movies that not only redefined the spy genre but made it relevant in the 21st century; even the James Bond franchise seemed to borrow from Bourne tonally once Daniel Craig was aboard. This feels like it cribbed a lot of its material from previous Bourne movies.

Greengrass likes to use the handheld camera for fight scenes and that does, I’ll admit, create a very kinetic action sequence. It also makes it nearly impossible to tell who is doing what to whom, and as a result it tends to waste the choreography and skill of those doing the fighting. I’m already prone to vertigo and those scenes don’t do me any favors; friends who have seen the movie who have no balance issues have reported feeling queasy during the fight scenes and having to look away from the screen. I get that this is something that Greengrass is known for and it’s tough sometimes for a filmmaker to give up a trademark of their style but perhaps he should consider it in this case.

Damon however, having won an Oscar since the last time he played Bourne, still is as Chuck Norris as they come in the role and yes I’m using the actor’s name as an adjective. He scowls with the best of them – in fact, I don’t think anyone cracks a smile in the entire movie that I could remember – and kicks bootie as well as any actor who doesn’t have a martial arts background to begin with. Bourne may well end up being his signature role (as Bond was for Sean Connery and Harry Callahan was for Clint Eastwood) and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tommy Lee Jones is also fun to watch; he’s a crocodile in a business suit with a lapel pin and you can feel the slime dripping off of him as he works his magic. Hero or villain, Jones is one of the most reliable actors there has ever been; I can’t remember him ever phoning in a performance. French superstar Cassel (who is badly underrated here in the States) is almost Damon’s equal as the villainous Asset.

Despite the tendency towards overly kinetic camera work, Greengrass still knows how to mount edge-of-your-seat action sequences and the car chase down the Las Vegas strip near the movie’s conclusion may well be the best of the entire series. It is a thing of beauty and is worth seeing the film for all by itself. It is by no means the only well-staged action sequence in the film, however and in many ways other than Damon’s performance the action pieces are the best thing about the movie.

I don’t know if the franchise is getting a bit tired; something tells me that Greengrass probably has done about everything he needs to as far as Jason Bourne is concerned and while I think Damon is amazing in the role, it also might be time to put another actor into it if they are going to continue the franchise and if Damon won’t work with anyone else but Greengrass in order to play the part. Jeremy Renner will be returning in the not-too-distant future in another movie set in the Bourne universe, and perhaps it is time to see what other directors, writers and actors can do with it. I think that there’s a lot more that can come out of the franchise but this movie seems to indicate that those who have guided it successfully so far have essentially run out of steam.

REASONS TO GO: Matt Damon is as badass as ever. The Las Vegas car chase is a classic.
REASONS TO STAY: Shaky handheld camera work smacks of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. Too many elements are just like other Bourne films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence as well as a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Part of the film is set in Athens, Greece but due to the high taxes and bureaucratic obstacles, filming for that portion took place in Tenerife in the Canary Islands instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spectre
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Nerve

Central Intelligence


Black spies matter.

Black spies matter.

(2016) Spy Comedy (New Line/Universal) Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul, Ryan Hansen, Tim Griffin, Timothy John Smith, Sione Kelepi, Dylan Boyack, Thomas Kretschmann, Megan Park, Slaine, Annie Kerins, Nate Richman, Robert Woo, Kumail Nanjiani, Phil Reeves, David Stassen, Rickey Eugene Brown, Kadian Clarke. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

 

When we’re in high school, we have dreams and inspirations – and sometimes nightmares. The people we become are generally not the people we thought we’d be. And as for those who we went to school with, they often turn out much different than we imagined as well.

In high school, Calvin Joyner (Hart) was the golden boy. In fact, his nickname was the Golden Jet. A star athlete, picked the most likely to succeed and going out with the head cheerleader Maggie (Nicolet). He had everything going his way. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Robert Weirdicht (Kelepi), fat and a little bit off-kilter, the target of every bully in school. During a pep rally, he’s dragged naked out of the shower and paraded in the buff in front of the entire school. Calvin, maybe the only kid in school who could stand up for him, does so, covering him with his Lettermans jacket. Weirdicht runs out of the gym and never returns to school again.

Twenty years later, Calvin is not the success he thought he’d be, even though he married his high school sweetheart and is working as an accountant which pays pretty well. His 20 year high school reunion is approaching and he doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t want to kill the legend of the Golden Jet by showing up as a mid-level accountant.

Then he gets contacted by a gentleman named Bob Stone (Johnson) who turns out to be Robert Weirdicht. He asks Calvin if he wants to get together for a drink and although Calvin is reluctant, Maggie insists and so Calvin meets Bob, completely shocked at the way Bob turned out; nearly a foot taller than Calvin and built like a pro wrestler (see what I did there?) which is humiliating in and of itself.

As it turns out, Bob is a bit of a renegade. Okay, he literally is a renegade agent for the CIA. He is being sought after for stealing classified data and murdering his partner (Paul). Bob claims he’s been set up, while the agent in charge (Ryan) is pursuing him relentlessly. Is Bob the hero he seems to be or is he using Calvin in a fiendish plot to get revenge on a world that treated him shabbily?

Well, you should be able to figure that one out without much effort. Central Intelligence is just the latest in a string of spy comedies which feature top comic actors putting themselves through action hero paces. In many ways this is the most promising of the lot because there’s a genuine action hero in the center (Johnson) and quite frankly, he’s pretty adept at comedy as well. Right alongside him is maybe the most popular and successful comic working in 2016.

And quite frankly, these two aren’t the problem. In fact, the two of them are a good reason to go out and see Central Intelligence; their interactions are that good. They make a surprisingly strong comedy team with Hart often playing the straight man role, surprisingly enough. Johnson is outstanding, with his hero-worship and his social awkwardness and his somewhat jaw-dropping eye-popping geekiness. Johnson has oodles of charm and he brings all of it to bear on the audience, who are helpless before it. The dichotomy between him and Hart also proves to be a comedy gold mine.

Sadly, the two are serviced by a plot that is predictable and at times nonsensical. While Jason Bateman has a fairly substantial role as the school bully 20 years later, the other big cameo by Melissa McCarthy is a blink-and-you-missed-it affair. There are plenty of gun fights but very few gunshot wounds, as you might expect from a PG-13 movie.

There is a running gag about the John Hughes classic Sixteen Candles whose references might escape modern audiences (younger viewers might be well-advised to watch that movie before going out and seeing this one) that is pretty funny and constitute some of the most well-written portions of the script. Somewhere, Molly Ringwald is smiling no doubt.

Sadly, those moments are more isolated than I would have liked and the best scenes in the movie are mainly given away in the trailer. Calvin spends way too much time protesting he’s not in, whereas Bob spends too much time being oblivious. You would think that a superspy would be a little bit more savvy.

I think that the studios were hoping this would be the beginning of a franchise and by all rights it should have been. Sadly, the writers went for safe and ended up with a bland, generic comedy that is adequate for its needs but not exciting enough to stir genuine love from the audience. Definitely not a waste of your time, but not time well-spent either.

REASONS TO GO: Hart and Johnson make a fine team. The Sixteen Candles references work well.
REASONS TO STAY: The best moments are in the trailer. Not very inventive.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of crude and sexually suggestive humor, some brief nudity, plenty of action violence and a smidgen of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Warner Brothers (who owns New Line) and Universal have jointly distributed a film since 1996 (Twister).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Independence Day: Resurgence

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi


(2016) True Life Drama (Paramount) John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini, Alexia Barlier, David Constabile, Peyman Moaadi, Matt Letscher, Toby Stephens, Demetrius Grosse, David Giuntoli, Mike Moriarty, David Furr, Kevin Kent, Freddie Stroma, Andrew Arrabito, Kenny Sheard, Christopher Dingli, Manuel Cauchi, Frida Cauchi. Directed by Michael Bay

One of the watershed moments of the last five years is the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. temporary embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Three people were killed, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Since then, it has been used as a rallying point for the right to display the incompetence of the current administration and to place themselves in the role as advocates for the victims. The left has come to see the attack as something of a conservative media Judas goat in which facts are obscured or downright fabricated for the sake of scoring political points, particularly against presidential candidate Hilary Clinton who was Secretary of State at the time.

The movie is based on the accounts of three members of the Global Response Staff, the private contractors employed by the CIA to protect agency installations worldwide. The GRS is mainly made up of ex-military members. Jack Silva (Krasinski), a veteran of GRS tours of duty, arrives in Benghazi to find a city in chaos. Their longtime military dictator, Moammar Qaddafi had fallen and the government was struggling to keep order. The city of Benghazi was essentially ruled by competing militias of which the 17-Feb was most closely allied with American interests.

Included in the six man team protecting the Annex, the CIA installation a mile from the embassy, was Tyrone “Rone” Woods (Dale), his good friend and commanding officer; Mark “Oz” Geist (Martini), Dave “Boon” Benton (Denman) – the team sniper, John “Tig” Tiegen (Fumusa) and Kris “Tonto” Paronto (Schreiber). The station manager, known only as “The Chief” (Constabile), seems annoyed by the presence of the security professionals and warns them against engaging with the locals. Even though tensions are high, the men have a lot of down time to think about their families and their choices to serve their country so far from home.

As the anniversary of the attack of 9/11 nears, Ambassador Chris Stevens (Letscher) arrives with a small Diplomatic Services security team with the aim of strengthening U.S./Libya relations. Despite security worries on the part of the GRS team, he is determined to stay at the temporary embassy which is a security nightmare defended mostly by members of the 17-Feb militia. When after darkness falls an attack on the embassy is made by militants, the militia runs for their lives and the embassy is left wide open for attack. The GRS team wants to head over there to rescue those who are being overrun but The Chief refuses to allow them to go, unwilling to let the Annex go undefended. However, as it became clear that those at the Embassy were in mortal danger, the GRS team elected to mount a rescue mission, realizing that the militants might well follow them back to the Annex and mount an attack there as well.

Bay is known for his big budget special effects extravaganza and while there are some well-choreographed combat sequences, this is a much smaller scale than we’re used to seeing from him. In some ways you get the sense that he tends to be better suited for the Transformers-style action epics, but he handles the scale here pretty well although there doesn’t seem to be a ton of character development. I had a hard time differentiating the GRS team from each other (there are also other GRS operatives who show up later, including Glen “Bub” Doherty (Stephens) who also perished in the attack. There is a lot of gung-ho testosterone bonding among the men, which is to be expected.

The filmmakers took great pains to recreate the embassy and annex in Malta, and the combat sequences look pretty darn realistic from my uneducated point of view. Those sequences are pretty terrifying as it must have been for those inside both compounds. I would have been the one balled up in a corner weeping for my mommy. I can’t imagine living through something like that.

What was unexpected for me was the emotional impact of the film, and that has more to do with the significance of the event rather than Bay’s skills as a filmmaker. I can imagine that if the characters were a little more drawn up I would have cared a great deal more and the film would have had even more resonance. As it is you leave the movie feeling genuine grief for those who didn’t make it, as well as admiration for those who did.

Earlier I discussed the politicization of the event and it bears discussion here. Much of how you see this film is likely to be colored by your politics. Some critics of a right-wing leaning have overpraised the film (in my opinion) while other critics of a left-wing leaning have been unduly harsh (again in my opinion). I think that Bay went out of his way to make the movie apolitical, but let’s face it; making the film at all was a political statement. As best I can, I tried to leave my political hat out of it and tried to judge the film purely on entertainment value, and found that this is a solid, better than average movie that in a season when most of the offerings out there are pretty awful, can be recommended with little reservation although again, you’ll tend to see this movie viewed through the lens of your political outlook. As long as that’s duly noted, you should be okay.

REASONS TO GO: A very realistic account. A powerful emotional experience.
REASONS TO STAY: Politicization or the events may inform your perspective. Not a lot of character development.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of combat-style violence, rough language and some images of bloody carnage.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Krasinski, Denman and Constabile all starred on the hit sitcom The Office.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Sniper
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Finest Hours

Bridge of Spies


Tom Hanks meets the press.

Tom Hanks meets the press.

(2015) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Peter McRobbie, Austin Stowell, Dakin Matthews, Eve Hewson, Jesse Plemons, Scott Shepherd, Lucia Ryan, Wil Rogers, Nadja Bobyleva, Joe Forbrich, David Wilson Barnes, Mikhail Gorevoy, Steve Cirbus, Billy Magnussen, Noah Schnapp, Jillian Lebling. Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Cold War was in many ways, anything but. While the Soviet Union and the United States weren’t shooting at each other, that didn’t mean there weren’t casualties.

Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is a painter living in Brooklyn. The FBI thinks he’s a spy for the Soviet Union and they are following him, although he manages to evade their pursuit. He picks up a nickel on a park bench and discovers the coin has been hollowed out with a message left for him inside. However, eventually the FBI catches up with him and arrests him.

Eager to make a good impression on the world stage, rather than summarily executing the spy the government is keen on putting Abel on trial. They engage insurance lawyer James V. Donovan (Hanks) to represent him. At first Donovan wants nothing to do with it; he knows that representing an accused spy would bring him into a spotlight he doesn’t want he or his family to be in; he knows that people will hate him almost as much as they hate Abel but he truly believes that every man is entitled to a proper defense and decides that this is the least he can do to serve his country after having served it well in the Second World War.

He undertakes to defend Abel, advising him to cooperate with the U.S. Government but Abel refuses. Donovan grows to admire Abel for his loyalty to his cause, even if that cause is diametrically opposed to that of his country. Donovan endeavors to give Abel the most vigorous defense he can, knowing the judge (Matthews) in his case is predisposed to let Abel swing from the highest rope in the land. Donovan pleads with the judge to consider sparing Abel’s life, arguing that it would be a good thing to have Abel in hand just in case an American spy were to get captured, not to mention it would make America look merciful in the eyes of the world.

As it turns out, they were about to get a reason to keep Abel alive when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Stowell), piloting a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, is shot down and contrary to his orders captured alive (his orders was to take a cyanide pill and kill himself before getting captured). The government, knowing that Powers has knowledge of their spy plane program that they don’t want the Soviets to have, discovers that the Soviets are making overtures for a prisoner swap through the East Germans and to Donovan. CIA chief Allen Dulles (McRobbie) sends Donovan to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange. However, the Berlin Wall is being built, splitting the city in two. Tensions are high and the East Germans have captured an American student named Frederic Pryor (Rogers) who was studying economics there as a spy. Everyone knows that Pryor is no spy but now there is another element to the mix – and the Soviet and East German agendas might be entirely different.

Spielberg is a master storyteller and in many ways he’s the equivalent of Frank Capra. Hanks as I’ve mentioned before is the modern Jimmy Stewart and like Capra and Stewart, Spielberg and Hanks make as dynamic a director/actor pairing as we’ve seen in the last 20 years (with the exceptions maybe of Scorsese/Di Caprio and maybe Burton/Depp in that mix. This is the fifth time the two have been paired together and they’ve never made a bad movie.

And neither is this one. Hanks imbues Donovan with decency without making him cloying. Donovan’s faith in the Constitution resonates and once more, he’s absolutely right to. Donovan – and through him Spielberg and writers the Coen Brothers – preach that the Constitution is our roadmap to guide us through difficult situations; suspending it or ignoring it lessens us as a nation. Considering how fast and loose we’ve played with the Constitution in our War on Terror, the lesson has an extra importance especially now.

Rylance, who has won his share of Tony Awards for his work on Broadway, nearly steals the show from Hanks (a daunting task) by creating a man who is loyal to his nation, intelligent but also a human being, who grows to respect Donovan for his own loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. The real Rudolf Abel was a complicated man and Rylance conveys that.

The movie really is divided into two halves; the first part in which Donovan defends Abel which is essentially a courtroom drama, and the second in which Donovan goes to arrange the exchange which is more of a Cold War spy thriller. The first part actually works a little bit better than the second although it is in fact a bit drier in some ways; while I suspect the average moviegoer will like the second half better (the first can be slow-moving), it is the first where the meat of the message is delivered and has much more connection with me, at least.

For those who lived through the Cold War, the fear of nuclear holocaust was a real one you lived with every day. Duck and cover was a real thing. It looks quaint to modern eyes but it was the reality of the situation. People fully expected that World War III would be the last war – and that war would be inevitable. People in America really thought the Soviet Union was as evil as Nazi German. The Soviet citizenry probably thought much the same about America.

In some ways we haven’t grown much past those days. We still need an enemy to fear. We still lose our shit when someone outrages us. We still think the constitution should be suspended when it comes to terrorists, never realizing that once you go down that road that you can never go back – and that constitution that has guided us and protected us all these years becomes a little less shiny, a little less secure. The lessons from Bridge of Spies are extremely important in that regard; that they are presented in a well-crafted tale is icing on the cake.

REASONS TO GO: Spielberg and Hanks make a terrific pair. Rylance gives Oscar-worthy performance. Period of history brought ably to life.
REASONS TO STAY: Plods a little bit. Feels like two different movies…
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some brief foul language and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed on the Glienecke Bridge near the end of the film is the exact spot where the events depicted in the scene took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Too Hip for the Room