The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

(2015) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Paula Malcomson, Stanley Tucci, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Eugenia Bondurant. Directed by Francis Lawrence

When a franchise comes to an end, the hope is that it goes out with a bang. Everyone wants a Return of the Jedi but there’s always a danger of a The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part II. On which side will this girl power young adult franchise lean?

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is distressed that her erstwhile boyfriend Peta (Hutcherson) has been brainwashed by the evil minions of President Snow (Sutherland) to hate her to the point that he goes berserk at the sight of her. Although the rebel medical team is trying to break his conditioning, he remains a danger to Katniss and even a visit by baby sister Primrose (Shields) leads to another foaming at the mouth segment.

The timing of that is not so good, as the rebels are preparing to make their final assault on the Capital. Rebel President Coin (Moore) and her adviser Plutarch (Hoffman) are wary of allowing Katniss, who was brutally injured at the hands of Peta in Part 1 of the concluding volume of the franchise and then again during a raid on the District 2 armory, anywhere near the front although she continues to be valuable as a propaganda tool.

Nonetheless, Katniss heads to the Capital against direct orders and accompanied by her Hunger Game friend Finn (Claflin), her former boyfriend Gale (Hemsworth) and Boggs (Ali), a veteran warrior. She is ordered to steer well clear of the battlefront and to stay far behind the lines and make propaganda videos. President Snow has peppered the Capital with lethal traps designed by the Hunger Games designers. Some turn out to be more lethal than others.

As Katniss gets closer and closer to the Presidential palace and the confrontation between the two looks to be inevitable, she will discover the price for revenge may end up being incredibly high and that there are people close to her who have motives of their own that may well not include Katniss’ survival as part of the plan.

The production design for the movie is superb – it looks sleek and wow-inducing. The special effects are solid and the action sequences are thrilling. For many viewers, that’s all the movie really needs. For me, though, while there are a few scenes that contain emotional payoffs (none of which I’ll use here to illustrate as I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, although fans of the book will know what they are), the movie didn’t have an emotional resonance with me that the conclusion of an epic series should.

I could say part of the problem is that there are too many characters, many of whom I couldn’t keep straight, but that was true of the Harry Potter series as well and I had no trouble figuring out who was who. I could also say that the movie relied overly much on action rather than character, but that was true of the first Star Wars trilogy and that movie resonated with emotion at the end.

I think the problem is a blend of both issues; too many characters, many of whom had little development. To author Suzanne Collins’ credit, she didn’t rely on the love triangle that many young adult franchises with female heroines tend to utilize. However, there are too many extraneous pieces in the puzzle and the movie would have been better off leaving them out entirely, which might have been bad news for fans of Claflin and Hemsworth but good news for Lawrence’s fans, because I think the primary problem here is that Lawrence really gets short shrift here.

I sometimes wonder if Katniss Everdeen is really a good role model for young women; there’s a fine line between being headstrong and being mulish. There is also a fine line between being spontaneous and being foolish, as she takes a lot of chances that put lots of other people at risk, some of whom pay the ultimate price for it. Yes, that weighs heavily on Katniss’ soul but I guess our heroes these days have to be a little self-centered to be relatable.

The worst part is that there seemed to be no momentum, no fire. Certain cast members, particularly the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone and Donald Sutherland, did their level best but for the most part this felt very emotionally flat to me. Judging from the box office for the movie which has been okay but not what was expected, some of their fans haven’t had that connection either. I’ll admit that maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day I saw this, but for whatever reason the movie didn’t connect with me and I really wanted it to – I’ve generally liked the series but it felt like it ran out of steam here rather than finishing with a flourish.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of eye candy. Some emotional payoffs.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. No momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene near the end when Haymitch reads a letter from Plutarch to Katniss was supposed to be dialogue from Plutarch, but actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who played the role, passed away before the scene could be filmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Peanuts Movie

Iraqi Odyssey


A family outing in the Iraq that was.

A family outing in the Iraq that was.

(2014) Documentary (Typecast) Jamal al Tahir, Sabah Jamal Aldin, Suhair Jamal Aldin, Samira Jamal Aldin, Tanya Uldin, Samir Jamal Aldin. Directed by Samir

documented

Generally, when people in the West think of Iraq, the impression isn’t very good. We find savage religious war between Sunnis and Shiites, an army that turned and ran at the first sign of ISIS, a democracy in chaos. Of course, the United States bears a great deal of responsibility on that score when we’re talking about that last item, but still most people have a very negative opinion about Iraq in general.

However, people tend to forget that once Iraq was one of the most modern of Middle East countries, one in which the middle class was strong and education was valued. Once having thrown off the yoke of colonialism, the monarchy in Iraq was actually relatively progressive compared to other countries in the region. Women in Baghdad dressed as they did in Los Angeles and the universities in Iraq produced some of the finest doctors and engineers in the world.

That’s all changed now, and with all the upheaval that has been suffered by that country, from Saddam Hussein and the Baathist party’s brutal repression through the unnecessary Iran-Iraq war to the bombing of the Gulf War and it’s sequel to the American occupation, many of the finest citizens of Iraq have spread to the four winds.

This documentary is the story of one family, well-to-do and middle class and progressive (the daughters, for example, were allowed to marry for love rather than by parental arrangement) who can trace back their lineage back to the prophet Mohammed (but are mainly secular now) and whose own family mirrors the chaos in Iraq. The family for various reasons has scattered across the globe and while director Samir mentions a good many of them, he focuses on Jamal who now lives in Moscow, Sabah who now lives in New Zealand, Suhair who lives in Buffalo, Samira who lives in London and Samir himself in Switzerland.

In doing so we get a fairly detailed crash course on Iraqi history of the 20th century. We see the communist party in postwar Iraq ready to assume leadership but abandoned by Moscow after the Cuban Missile crisis, leading the way for the Baathists – who were founded as an outgrowth of the Nazi party – to take over.

Through home video and archival footage we get a sense of the closeness of the clan, the activities they took part in and the anguish that has overtaken them all, scattered across the globe as they are. To put it in perspective, think of your own family and imagine that every last one of them lived in a different corner of the globe. How would that affect your own happiness?

The film is amazingly informative and gives us a good deal of insight into the issues of the Middle East from a perspective most of us haven’t really been exposed to. The major problem here however is that the film is nearly three hours long and after awhile it’s like a university lecture that has gone on much too long. The interviews with the family members tend to take place against black backgrounds and are often in English, although they are also in German and Arabic and I believe, Kurdish as well, which doesn’t help audiences with attention span issues, i.e. Americans.

The use of graphics is nicely integrated into the film, with charts and graphs indicating the relationships between the various family members (very much appreciated) and the distance between family members geographically (not so much). The music, mainly comprised of traditional instruments of the region, from time to time playfully uses regional music of the region where the interviews are taking place (the Marseilles in France or the Star-Spangled Banner in the United States) and one gets a sense of the humor that these extraordinary people have had to have in order to stay relatively sane. We also get a sense of the loneliness and isolation many of them feel.

In many ways this may end up being the definitive work of the Iraqi Diaspora and academics may well want to study it. However for the casual viewer, this is quite a momentous undertaking and while chock full of admirable material, may be a little bit much for those who are easily bored. However, those who don’t mind binge watching 13 hours of their favorite Netflix show might benefit from putting that kind of discipline to work here.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely informative. Clever use of graphics and music.
REASONS TO STAY: Way, way, way too long. Very much like watching home movies.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over four million Iraqis live in Diaspora as of this writing..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outside the Law (2010)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Stink!

Beasts of No Nation


Clean up your room!

Clean up your room!

(2015) Drama (Netflix/Bleecker Street) Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama Abebrese, Richard Pepple, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel Affadzi, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Fred Nii Amugi, Grace Nortey, Ebenezer Annanfo, Zabon Gibson, Randy Aflakpui, Justice Promise Azduey, Annointed Wesseh, Abdul Mumin Mutawaki. Directed by Cary Fukunaga

The things that are done in war are as brutal and inhuman as our species get. In fact, “inhuman” is a bit of a misnomer; in many ways, war defines our species so the things we do, the brutalities we inflict are very human indeed.

Agu (Attah) is a young boy in a village in an unnamed African country that is being torn by civil war. Utilizing an old TV set with most of its innards torn out, he and his friends use this “imagination TV” to entertain villagers by creating television entertainment. The civil war has been far away from then until word comes that the rebel troops are coming.

Knowing that the fighting will soon come to their village, the women and children are set to be taken to a place of safety. His mother (Abebrese) and his baby brother are allowed to go but the drive of the vehicle refuses to allow Agu aboard. Reluctantly, his mother leaves promising to come back as soon as the fighting is over.

But it is the government troops that come into the village and start slaughtering the males who had stayed behind to fight, including Agu’s father (Amissah-Sam) and brother. Rebels find the traumatized Agu hiding in the hills and he is brought to their Commandant (Elba) to be executed but instead the Commandant keeps Agu on as a child soldier and gives him to the mute Strika (Quaye) to train.

The training is brutal and the fighting worse. These young boys (and girls) are made to do terrible, horrible things, unthinkable things. Agu doesn’t do these things out of rage but out of fear; fear that if he refuses, the Commandant will have him butchered. He lives in a constant certainty that he is going to Hell once he dies for the things he has done – his mother was a fervent Christian. And the more he sees and the more he does, the more certain he is that his soul has been tainted.

This isn’t the first movie to depict the plight of child soldiers but it certainly is one of the most powerful. Much of this is because of Attah, the gifted young actor whose dead-eyed fear-wracked expression is much more powerful than any dialogue could convey. Attah has to be both a normal young African child and a ruthless child warrior and he pulls both off effectively. I honestly don’t know if he has plans to continue his acting career but based on the notices he has gotten for his work here that road is definitely open for him.

English actor Idris Elba has been described as a force of nature and he is the polar opposite here to his performance in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. His Commandant is manipulative, sadistic and simply the essence of evil but the Commandant doesn’t see himself that way; rather the character thinks of himself as a great man, doing whatever it takes to make change in his country – however he doesn’t really do this for love of country so much as love of power and when his political position becomes more and more untenable, the dynamic changes until the fear that he once inspired is gone.

The movie was privately financed by Fukunaga who sold the broadcast rights to Netflix. The streaming giant, looking to release movies on their own both on their service and theatrically, offered to give the movie a theatrical run; the larger theatrical chains said no thanks, despite it’s award winning festival run and Oscar buzz. The precedent, went the thinking, of releasing movies simultaneously on Netflix and in theaters would be an end to their business and they may have a point  The Landmark chain, consisting primarily of art houses, however have opted to present it in their theaters so if your town has a Landmark cinema it is likely to be there.

Fukunaga, whose previous project was the massively acclaimed and overwhelmingly popular HBO miniseries True Detective has been working on this project off and on for seven years. He contracted malaria while filming it in Ghana and put up with budget cuts and major difficulties with African officials and law enforcement. There is a great deal of sensitivity in the region about these wars and how they are depicted; there are some American liberals who say that this film plays to the racist element in our society, which is a load of horseshit.

We can’t ignore crimes against humanity because of the color of the skin of those who commit them. Black lives do matter; that’s why it shouldn’t matter the color of the skin of the people who are destroying them and ending them, whether a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri or a black warlord in Somalia. This is a story that should be told and it is a story that here at least has been told extremely well.

REASONS TO GO: Incendiary performances by Elba and Attah. Realistic and intense.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit during the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence, some of it disturbing – some of it committed by or against children. Some sexuality and rape, and a lot of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fukunaga intended to cast former child soldiers as extras for the movie but a large number of them were arrested in Ivory Coast on suspicions of being mercenaries and so Fukunaga was forced to go with local extras.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
NEXT: Hot Sugar’s Cold World

Shout Gladi Gladi


Shouting Gladi Gladi.

Shouting Gladi Gladi.

(2015) Documentary (International Film Circuit) Meryl Streep (narrator), Melinda Gates, Ann Gloag, Wole Soyinka, Dr. Jeff Wilkinson, Philippa Richards, Dr. Stephen Kaliti, Hawa Hawatouri, Vanesia Laiti, Juliette Bright, Isatu Kamara, Dr. Tagie Gbawuru-Mansaray, Lucy Mwangi, Omar Scott, Lois Boyle, Florence Banda, Margaret Moyo, Sydneylyn Faniyan, Jude Holden, Mary Yafet. Directed by Adam Friedman and Iain Kennedy

The mortality rate for both infants and mothers giving birth in Africa is staggering. A large part of the reason for that is a lack of adequate medical care, particularly for pregnant women. Here in the West, we are used to women going to obstetricians on a regular basis, being monitored to make sure all is well with the baby and the mom. With any sort of medical facility often requiring a drive of hundreds of miles and without access to transportation to get there, women give birth in unsanitary conditions. Babies often die before they reach the age of five.

A fistula is essentially a tear in the vaginal wall between the bowel or bladder. It causes leakage and incontinence, which leads to the women thus affected to be shunned by family and their village. They are not formed due to disease or genetic defects; they are the results of prolonged labor which here in the West can be avoided by a simple Caesarian section; in the bush, that isn’t an option. They can also be caused by sexual violence; they are not uncommon when children are raped.

They can be repaired surgically but it takes time and patience. Traditionally, women in rural African nations have been reluctant to go to Doctors and there were few facilities that they could go to, even if they wanted to and could afford to. Ann Gloag, a Scottish transportation mogul who began her career as a nurse, saw this issue and knew she needed to do something to stop the carnage. She began the Freedom From Fistula Foundation and helped open clinics and facilities throughout Africa. Two of them, the Aberdeen Women’s Center in Freetown, Sierra Leone and the Fistula Care Center at the Bwaila Maternity Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi are profiled here.

We get to hear from the doctors and nurses who staff these facilities but more importantly, from the women themselves. Sierra Leone, recovering from a devastating civil war, in particular is heartbreaking as we see the rampant poverty of the slums, and hear horror stories of women abducted and used as sexual slaves. Even in Malawi, we hear about women turned out of their homes and essentially left to die before being brought to the Fistula Care Center.

Both facilities have outreach programs, attempting to educate women on pre-natal care as well as arrange for those already afflicted to leave their homes and go to the clinics to be healed. The women are often sent home with a device called a BBoxx, a miniature solar generator which can be used to charge cell phones which in villages with little or no electricity can be a paying job. It also provides electric power for small spaces, allowing women to live with light and comfort.

Streep narrates the film in a compassion-filled voice that reminds us that she is Hollywood royalty, able to convey even the most terrible words with something approaching comfort. Some of it must have been hard for her to say, but she does so without flinching.

The real stars however are the women themselves; wherever they go there is music. They are constantly clapping and singing, and despite being terribly sick they have a spirit that cannot be denied or stopped. You cannot help but admire these women, often outcasts whose husbands have deserted them but remain upbeat. When the women are cured, there is a ceremony slash party called Gladi Gladi which celebrates their return home. It is filled with dancing and music and laughter. They capture a few of them here and the joy is infectious.

The movie’s one flaw is that there are too many stories here. The film works best when they concentrate on a particular subject, such as Vanesia Laiti, the 70 year old woman who has lived with her fistula for 40 years and Mary Yafet, whose pregnancy at too young an age resulted in a fistula. They would have done better to select two or three patients at each clinic and allowed us to follow their progress. There are so many different people portrayed here that it’s hard to really get involved with any of their stories since we’re only hearing snippets. We also hear from philanthropist Melinda Gates whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major supporter of Freedom from Fistula, and Nobel Laureate playwright and activist Wole Soyinka, who lends gravitas.

This is a major problem that has a simple solution. Clinics like these provide them, giving free medical care to women who desperately need them but more than that, give them an opportunity to live productive lives once they are cured. It’s an inspiring documentary that takes a subject that might be painful or uncomfortable for some and turns it into an uplifting celebration of the human spirit.

REASONS TO GO: Important material seldom discussed. The women are amazing. Great music.
REASONS TO STAY: The squeamish may have problems with a couple of scenes. Too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some nudity involving nursing and birthing. Adult themes and some horrifying descriptions of rape and torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was commissioned by the Freedom From Fistula Foundation, whose activities are the subject here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Timbuktu
BEYOND THE THEATER: iTunes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Finders Keepers

Primeval


Orlando Jones and Brooke Langton were hoping this would be a lot more like Chariots of Fire than it turned out to be.

Orlando Jones and Brooke Langton were hoping this would be a lot more like Chariots of Fire than it turned out to be.

(2007) Horror (Hollywood) Dominic Purcell, Orlando Jones, Brooke Langton, Jurgen Prochnow, Gideon Emery, Gabriel Malema, Dumisani Mbebe, Ernest Ndhlovu, Erica Wessels, Patrick Lyster, Eddy Bekombo, Vivian Moodley, Lika Van Den Bergh, Linda Mpondo, Lehiohonolo Makoko, Chris April, Andrew Whaley, Jacqui Pickering. Directed by Michael Katleman

Man is capable of committing absolute horrors to his fellow man. However, man is also part of a larger natural order of things – survival of the fittest where the strong prey on the weak. And upon occasion, Man isn’t necessarily at the top of the food chain.

The African nation of Burundi is caught up in a terrible civil war that has been ongoing for twelve years. When a mass grave is located in the Northern portion of the country, a United Nations team is sent to investigate the find, led by one of the foremost forensic pathologists (Wessels) in the world. In a shocking turn of events, the woman is attacked and dragged into the waters of the river by a gigantic crocodile known to the locals as “Gustave.”

Tim Manfrey (Purcell), a television news network producer, is riding out a scandal in which he apparently ran a story without adequately checking the facts. The network chief (Lyster) wants to send him to Burundi not only to get the story of the gigantic crocodile, more than 20 feet long, but to capture the beast. He’ll be sent with wildlife reporter Aviva Masters (Langton), Manfrey’s regular cameraman Steven Johnson (Jones) and naturalist Matthew Collins (Emery), who is confident that he has built a contraption capable of capturing the massive reptile.

They are met in Burundi by a political functionary known as Harry (Mbebe) who warns them about a warlord in the bush known as “Little Gustave.” He introduces them to Jakob Krieg (Prochnow), their local guide and an expert on the crocodile whom he has been hunting for years. Krieg wants to kill the creature whereas Collins wants to capture it alive, which leads to some tension between the two.

Once in the village nearest the most recent attack, the news crew is struck by the friendliness of the people as well as by the horrible poverty of the village. They are required to receive a blessing by the local shaman (Ndhlovu) who predicts that they will find what they seek but they will also find death. Meanwhile, Johnson captures on film the brutal execution of a family from the village by a murderous lieutenant (Bekombo) of Little Gustave. Now they are being chased by the warlord’s men and being stalked by the croc. Great, you can end of being dinner or part of a mass grave for some other UN forensic pathologist to examine.

Purcell (TV’s Prison Break) is the lead here and he does a credible albeit colorless job. Unfortunately, his character is written without much for Purcell to work with, leaving him to cling to action hero clichés in order to move things along. Jones provides adequate comic relief in a role in which he is sadly underused, and Prochnow (who deserves better fare than this) handles the Robert Shaw role with as much dignity as he can muster.

The giant croc looks fairly realistic as CGI creations go. Some of the scenes in which the croc is seen below the surface of the water look hastily slapped together by someone with a Commodore VIC-20, but otherwise the monster was scary enough. The cinematographer utilizes the African vistas nicely.

This is based on true events – a naturalist in Burundi did attempt to capture Gustave (who is an actual beast that has been credited with killing more than 300 people along the Ruzizi River and also along the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika. They raise some good points about the situation in Africa; it takes the death of a white UN official to bring an American news crew to Burundi to cover a crocodile who has killed more than 300 Africans. The writing is taut and crisp, and they don’t waste too much time getting to the meat of the story – the stalking of the news crew by Gustave.

The film slyly alludes to Jaws which is a bit of a mistake; there are a lot of similarities to that film, and the comparison isn’t particularly flattering. Too many clichés clog up the writing, and the subplot about the Little Gustave warlord is unnecessary. Had they decided to focus on the hunt for the crocodile, they would have had a much better movie…but then again, it would have been Lake Placid.

The filmmakers were going for a cross between Lake Placid and Hotel Rwanda and instead got a four-legged Jaws. This isn’t a total waste of time – Jones is entertaining and the African vistas are worth seeing. However, it’s probably a bit too graphic for those who would be drawn in by the civil war story, and a bit too preachy for those who are more interested in the horror element. Yet another instance of a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be and so it ends up being nothing.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous African vistas. Jones provides much-needed comic relief.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lackluster acting. Cliches abound. Some of the CGI is laughable.
FAMILY MATTERS: Kids and dogs are eaten, and people are stalked by a terrifying crocodile. There are also some graphic executions and a boatload of corpses, some half-eaten and others murdered by the two-legged monsters in the movie, as well as some foul language if that bothers you at this point.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: A similar team in reality attempted to capture Gustave, using much the same methods but were unsuccessful due to equipment failure, inclement weather and deteriorating political conditions which eventually forced them to leave the country.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The “Crocumentary” featurette focuses on the actual Gustave who inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $15.3M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rogue
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Robot Overlords

The Keeping Room


Augusta, get your gun!

Augusta, get your gun!

(2014) Drama (Drafthouse) Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru, Kyle Soller, Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall, Nicholas Pinnock, Charles Jarman, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Luminita Filimon, Delia Riciu, Stefan Veiniciuc, Bogdan Farkas. Directed by Daniel Barber

Florida Film Festival 2015

When we think of war, we think of the men (and lately, women) on the battlefield, the ones actually shedding the blood and dying for their cause. We rarely think of those left behind to take care of things while their kinfolk are off to war.

As the Civil War was coming to an end and William Tecumseh Sherman was making his inexorable march to the sea, three women on a bucolic South Carolina farm were desperately trying to survive. Augusta (Marling), the eldest, is the most practical and the hardest working. She has come to realize that her daddy and her brothers are not coming back and that whatever they have to eat is what they grow and what they hunt, so she’s getting to business.

Louise (Steinfeld) is a teenager, spoiled by her place as the younger daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. She’s used to be coddled and cared for, her every little whim taken care of by someone else. She’s never worked a day in her life and still thinks that once the war is done and the Yankees vanquished, things will return to the way they were.

Mad (Otaru) is a slave that has become indispensable, strong and tough by years as a slave but compassionate for the girls that were once her mistresses. She, like Augusta, knows the war isn’t going well and hopes it will come to a swift conclusion so that her man Bill (Pinnock) will come home to her and help her tend this farm.

When Louise gets bitten by a raccoon, Augusta realizes that medicine will be needed or Louise might die. She stops at a neighboring plantation, only to discover horrors that she never could have imagined. She continues on into a nearby town which is mostly deserted except for a kindly bar owner (Dennehy) and a compassionate prostitute (Nuttall) – and two scouts for Sherman, Henry (Soller) and Moses (Worthington). Henry has lost any sense of decency; he’ll kill anything that moves and rape anyone who’s female and will drink anything that will banish such demons as men like this possess. Moses is looking for love in all the wrong places and by all the wrong means. The two had recently murdered a white woman they’d raped, a carriage driver and a passing slave. When Augusta gets away from them, they decide to track her and follow her back to the farm. What they don’t know is that the women don’t plan to give up without a fight.

Barber has a keen eye and an understanding of setting a mood; often his scenes are shrouded in midst or bright sunlight depending on the mood. He uses a lot of stunning images to get across more than any dialogue could tell; for example, early on he shows a flaming carriage pulled by terrified horses in the night. The spooked equines are galloping as fast as they can to escape the flames, not realizing they are pulling their own destruction with them. I don’t know if you could get a better metaphor than that.

Marling is becoming one of my favorite young actresses; she’s very poised in her roles (this one included) and seems to have a very good sense of which projects to choose as I haven’t really seen her in a movie that doesn’t showcase her talents well yet. She has the kind of self-possession that Robin Wright has always carried, which bodes well for Marling’s future.

Steinfeld who is no stranger to period pieces isn’t given as much to do, mainly acting the spoiled brat and then the frightened young girl. When backed against the wall Louise comes out swinging but for the most part she’s been used to depending on others all of her life and not on herself; the chances of Louise surviving the post-war South will depend very much on her ability to find an eligible husband.

Otaru is a real discovery. I hadn’t heard of her before, but she holds her own and then some against two very capable young actresses. She is mostly silent throughout the beginning of the movie but she has a couple of long speeches in the movie that really give you a sense of who Mad is and what drives her.

Barber also knows how to ratchet up the tension to high levels and the second portion of the movie is basically up to 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 in that regard. There are those who may say that there’s too much of a good thing in the tension department, but I would guess that Alfred Hitchcock might disagree; while this isn’t Hitchcockian in the strictest sense, I think the Master of Suspense would have approved of this. Some of the cliches of the genre however are very much in evidence, maybe a little too much so.

I found myself completely immersed in the film and committed to the story, which is exactly where you want your audience to be. While there are a few missteps – some stiff or awkward sequences by some of the actors, an overuse of an unconscious hero waking up just in the nick of time to save one of the others – by and large this is a beautifully crafted, intensely thrilling work of cinematic art. Definitely one to keep on your radar.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful images. Beautifully atmospheric. Impressively tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Overuses the same thriller cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of violence, a bit of sexuality, some cussing and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is set during the American Civil War in South Carolina, it was entirely filmed in Romania.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Uncle John

Hercules (2014)


All these guys can smell what the Rock is cooking.

All these guys can smell what the Rock is cooking.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (Paramount/MGM) Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, John Hurt, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson, Isaac Andrews, Joe Anderson, Stephen Peacocke, Nicholas Moss, Robert Whitelock, Christopher Fairbank, Irina Shayk, Barbara Palvin. Directed by Brett Ratner

Being a legend isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You have this high bar to live up to and the tales of your accomplishments can take on a mythic quality. When you’re Hercules, the son of Zeus, that can be doubly aggravating. It can also send you on a retreat from life.

Hercules (Johnson) has been living with his reputation most of his life. Freakishly strong, he wears a lion skin supposedly from the Lion of Nemea whom he slew as one of his twelve labors performed to get Hera off his back (Hera, the wife of Zeus, was none too pleased with the nascent godling from her husband’s loins). However, he employs his nephew Iolaus (Ritchie) to spread the tales of his legend – which makes his enemies fearful of what he can do. That can come in useful when you’re a mercenary.

Which is what Hercules has become. He was once under the employ of Athenian King Eurystheus (Fiennes) with a wife (Shayk) and children but after they were slaughtered and Hercules himself blamed for the heinous crime – which he can’t remember whether or not he had done – he was banished and wanders Greece accompanied by Iolaus, his right hand man Autolycus (Sewell), the prophet Amphiaraus (McShane) who is also a skilled fighter in his own right, the Amazon warrior Atalanta (Berdal) and the mute berserker Tydeus (Hennie). They make a formidable bunch.

They are given a job by Lord Cotys (Hurt) of Thrace whose land is in the midst of a bloody civil war. The dark, nefarious sorcerer Rhesus (Santelmann) has raised an army of demons and centaurs, burning down villages and massacring the inhabitants and bewitching the survivors to fight for him. Cotys’ daughter Ergenia (Ferguson) and her son Arius (Andrews) beseech the warrior for his help and he, taken by Ergenia’s giving nature, agrees to train the Thracian army to stand up to the rebel, with Cotys’ bemused General Sitacles (Mullan) somewhat skeptical about his success.

However, nothing is ever as it seems in Hercules’ world. He will have to become the hero of legend to save his crew and Thrace, and not just the legend invented by his nephew. In short, he must become Hercules, son of Zeus.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about the casting of Johnson as Hercules. He always seems to have a twinkle in his eye and a fairly laid back attitude as an action hero and I have always thought of Hercules as much more serious. No need to worry – Johnson makes an excellent Hercules. While I question the decision to have him wear a wig and fake beard, he certainly has the physique and he is a much better actor than most of the ones that have played Hercules in the past (although Kevin Sorbo was and is a terrific actor). I’d say that Johnson really carries the movie.

While the trailers show giant boars and lions and hydras and such, there is surprisingly little in the way of those sorts of special effects. That’s mainly because the graphic novel that the film is based on eschewed much of the mythological elements of Hercules’ story in favor of a more down to earth telling of his tale which is an original one.

I have to say that the movie is much more entertaining than I expected. Johnson’s natural charisma helps on that score, but Ratner, a director not known for subtlety, has a sure hand here and allows the characters to develop and make some headway. McShane, always dependable, is something of a mentor to Hercules and seems to be alone in knowing the truth of his tale. Sewell who often gets cast in villain roles gets a rare opportunity in a heroic cast and makes the most of it.

The fight scenes are well done and Hercules’ feats of strength are mostly believable here. It’s all mostly brute strength rather than agility and grace, but we get those from Bolso and Sewell in their sequences so it isn’t all skull crushing and horse throwing.

While the plot here is predictable (the plot twist that drives the last half of the movie is one you’ll see coming a mile away and the second half of the movie suffers as a result) and the dialogue tends towards the bombastic, this isn’t the kind of movie you go to see for the story. You go for the spectacle. You go for the action. And you go for the Rock. Finally, the Rock has come back to Thrace…

REASONS TO GO: The Rock is more cut than ever! Some nifty battlefield sequences. McShane and Sewell are entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Some of the dialogue is a bit creaky.

FAMILY VALUES:  Battle violence, occasional expletives, some disturbing images and brief sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Johnson, his fake beard in the film is made of yak testicle hair.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clash of the Titans

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies begins!

The Searchers (1956)


The greatest Western ever made.

The greatest Western ever made.

(1956) Western (Warner Brothers) John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Harry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden, Beulah Archuletta, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan, Pippa Scott, Pat Wayne, Lana Wood, Ruth Clifford, Danny Borzage. Directed by John Ford

The American Experience

The Western is an American archetype, carrying values that are uniquely American – the rugged individualist who solves his own problems, the romance of desolation and a code of honesty and integrity. Whether or not these remain American values in practice are certainly subject to debate but few film genres sum up the American psyche as the Western does.

If the Western is quintessentially American, then so to must director John Ford and actor John Wayne and thus their greatest collaboration, the 1956 epic The Searchers must be as well. It begins when Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns home to Texas after serving in the Confederacy during the Civil War; it’s three years since the war ended for the rest of the country but not for Ethan who has been up to no good since then, but he is welcomed home with open arms by his brother Aaron (Coy), Aaron’s wife Martha (Jordan) and their daughters Lucy (Scott) and Debbie (Wood).

When the sheriff and town parson Sam Clayton (Bond) drops by to see about putting together a posse to round up some cattle rustlers, Ethan goes with along with Martin (Hunter), a young man who was rescued by Ethan as a baby and given to his brother to raise. However, Ethan doesn’t like Martin much – Martin’s 1/8 Comanche and that’s 1/4 too much for Ethan.

When they discover the cattle slaughtered, they realize it was just a ruse and ride hard back to the homestead. There they find the Edwards place burned to the ground, Aaron and Martha dead and their daughters taken. Ethan vows to find the girls and Martin insists on going with him, even though Ethan doesn’t want him around. Brad Jorgensen (Carey) also goes with as he is the boyfriend of Lucy.

That search will go on for five long years and not everybody will come back who sets out on it. Martin will discover that Ethan means to put a bullet in the head of white girl who has been despoiled by a Comanche buck and aims to stop him, even though it may cost him the love of Laurie Jorgensen (Miles) who has been waiting for Martin patiently. When they finally discover that Debbie is in the hands of the vicious Chief Scar (Brandon), it will lead to an epic confrontation.

There is a great deal to love about this movie. Shot mainly in Ford’s beloved Monument Valley in Utah (doubling for Texas), the vistas here are breathtaking. Ford was fond of shots that featured vast wide angles with human subjects tiny within the frame and some of his best are found here. Wayne himself believed this to be his finest performance (and named one of his own sons Ethan after the character he played) which considering how amazing he did a Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is quite a compliment and to be honest, it’s hard to disagree with the Duke on this.

One thing that must be brought up when discussing this movie is the charges that have been leveled against it as racist against the Native American. Certainly Ethan’s viewpoint is racist; he hates all Indians and he’s not too fond of other non-whites either. He is very much an anti-hero, a model for characters that would come into popularity about 15 years later. He is also a product of his times – not just the historical post-Civil War context but also when the film was made. It was the heyday of the Western and even though film Westerns were on the decline largely due to their popularity on TV (why go pay to see a great Western when you could watch a good one for free at home) the Native Americans were generic villains, very much like Nazis in war movies. They weren’t really seen as people, just whooping savages to be shot off their horses by brave America soldiers and cowboys. Rarely were they given any sort of voice in movies and more rarely still, any dignity. While I can’t say I agree with Ethan’s hatreds and racism, I can at least dismiss them as the issues of a character, not the actor playing him nor the director filming him. Wayne was a lot of things, not all of them pleasant but he was not a racist. Ford also was a particularly tolerant man considering the era in which he lived and worked.

The plot is complex and Ethan isn’t terribly likable – this is a character Wayne didn’t usually play. There is something that is grand and epic about The Searchers. You realize you are watching something that is a lot more than the sum of its parts. It shows both the beauty of America – the natural beauty and also the beauty of that American spirit that never gives up. – and the ugliness in the way the Natives were treated.

One of the things that makes America great is its willingness to let show its flaws and warts and discuss them. We may not always do the right thing as a country but we certainly at least try to correct our mistakes. Like anything human however it takes time and will to make these changes happen. These days the movies have a different attitude towards Native culture than films from the 1950s did and in some small way The Searchers helped open up that dialogue, particularly in how the film ends. There are few films as American as this one – and few that sum up all the contradictions of our society as well as this. It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to gain insight into the American experience.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best movies ever made. Tremendous influence on modern movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely a film of its era. Shows some racism and misogynistic tendencies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buddy Holly saw the movie several times during the summer of 1956; he loved it so much that he took a phrase Ethan used repeatedly and turned it into one of his most beloved hit songs: “That’ll Be the Day.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette worth noting; a series of interviews with legendary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and John Milius discussing how The Searchers influenced them as directors, as well as some vintage promotional clips and an introduction by Patrick Wayne, son of John who had a small role as a bumbling cavalry officer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.8M (first run receipts only) on a $3.75M production budget; the film made back its budget and became profitable after second and third runs, home video and television sales..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Missing

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sleepy Hollow

Gods and Generals


The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

(2003) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Bruce Boxleitner, C. Thomas Howell, Kali Rocha, Frankie Faison, William Sanderson, Mira Sorvino, Alex Hyde-White, Matt Letscher, Joseph Fuqua, Jeremy London and a cast of thousands. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

The American Experience

When Gods and Generals came out in 2003, it was made by pretty much the same team that made the very successful Gettysburg in 1993 and certainly there had to have been high hopes that this would follow suit. However, while Gettysburg had Ken Burns’ highly personal and riveting PBS miniseries The Civil War to leapfrog from, it’s prequel would have no such assistance.

Based on a book by Jeffrey Shaara (whose father Michael wrote the book that Gettysburg was based on), the movie follows Confederate Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Lang) who was one of the most brilliant and fearless military minds of his time. He worked well with General Robert E. Lee (Duvall), who considered him his best field general. Jackson, a devout man who prayed to God even as he set out to kill as many Northern invaders as he could, resigned from his post as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute to take a post in the Confederate Army. He was responsible for some of the most important victories the Confederacy would have in the war and died senselessly, shot by his own men who mistook him and his escort for Union scouts.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie, even though critics at the time lambasted it for being florid, long on dialogue and riddled with too many subplots and characters. Some even criticized it for depicting Southerners as being more concerned with States rights than with Slavery. Nobody ever accused movie critics of being knowledgeable about history however. For the South, Slavery drove their economic engine and the feeling was that the abolition of Slavery would be an economic catastrophe. They didn’t want Northern politicians to tell them how to run their affairs. There is a tendency with some to depict the South as sadistic twisted slave owners who wanted the institution of Slavery to continue because of a cruel streak. What it really was about, as it usually is, was money.

So how does this film depict the American Experience? It captures a period in time when America stood at a crossroads and would in four bloody years come to define itself and its future. Certainly the movie tends to lean a little bit towards the Southern point of view, but to tar the South with a single brush is both inaccurate and a disservice. Quite frankly, I think it’s a good thing to see things from the other side – history is written by the winners and while Slavery was an abhorrent practice, to see what the South really thought they were fighting for is certainly worth considering. Gods and Generals definitely captures the period, not only in the sense of how the armies operated but the civilians as well. One thing that has been praised about this movie was their attention to detail when it came to accuracy; in fact this may be one of the most historically accurate films ever made.

Lang’s performance brings Jackson to life. While the style of speech has been heavily criticized, this is how the people of the time spoke. Clearly there is an element of history lesson here and it might be argued that the length and pacing of the movie is akin to one of those history professors who talks on and on and on and on. However, the sumptuous visuals and the attention to detail make this a history lesson that if one is willing to sit through will inform and amaze, and that’s the kind of history professor that always got my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Unusual historical accuracy. Terrific performance by Lang. A crackerjack reproduction of the era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and ponderous. Too much speechifyin’. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES:  While the battle sequences are tamer than some, there is still enough material here that might disturb the very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duvall, who played Robert E. Lee, is actually descended from the great general.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an introduction by Ted Turner who put up the production budget of the film himself (nearly $60 million) as well as music videos from Mary Fahl and Bob Dylan and  a look at the life of Stonewall Jackson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on a $56M production budget; unfortunately the movie has to be considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gettysburg

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes!

Lincoln


Lincoln

The pressures of being President encapsulated.

(2012) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gloria Reuben. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, author of the Gettysburg Address and for all intents and purposes, Savior of a Nation, is revered beyond any President this nation has ever known. He is considered by many to be the greatest President in the history of our nation; his face is one of four that adorns Mt. Rushmore and along with Washington is a literal icon of American history.

But with all the praise heaped upon him, the hero worship accorded him, the legendary status given him, we sometimes forget – in fact more than sometimes – that he was a man. In this latest film from Steven Spielberg nearly a dozen years in the making, we are presented with not only President Lincoln but with Abraham Lincoln – father, husband, raconteur, wily politician, lawyer and human being.

We pick up the story as Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is trying to get the13th Amendment passed. This constitutional amendment would ban slavery. The war is in its waning days and he is concerned that his Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t stand legal challenge which would surely come with the South rejoining the union which is what is expected will happen. He is concerned that will put the country back into the same position twenty years hence and a second civil war would surely destroy the Union utterly forever.

His Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) is in agreement and knows that once the South sues for peace which could happen at any time, the Amendment will never pass the fractious House of Representatives (the Amendment had already passed the Senate) and is 20 votes shy of the two thirds majority that is required. The time to get those votes is now; the House is in a lame duck situation with plenty of Democrats being shown the door in recent elections; not having to worry about re-election they could vote their conscience or on a baser level, these men would soon be needing jobs and could be persuaded to see reason with the right offer.

To that end Seward has employed William Bilbo (Spader), a lobbyist from New York whose chicanery is legendary. In the meantime, Lincoln is preparing for his inauguration and welcoming his son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) home from college. Robert is keen on joining the military and doing his duty to his country which Lincoln’s wife Mary (Field) is utterly against; she has already lost one son (in childhood to typhus) and will not lose another. Losing the first one drove her to the point of madness.

Opposing the bill are crafty politician George Pendleton (McRobbie) and firebrand orator Fernando Wood (Pace) from the Democratic side. Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) of Pennsylvania supports it, and is the target of the Democrats who wish the bill to fail. In the meantime, Francis Preston Blair (Holbrook) who founded the Republican party and whose influence can insure all the Republican representatives toe the line, is eager to go down to Richmond and negotiate a peace. Lincoln gives him permission to do so in return for his support.

Blair is in fact successful, getting the Confederacy to send a trio of peace negotiators led by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Haley) but Lincoln orders them kept out of Washington in order to allow the Amendment to pass which it would not if the Congressmen knew that peace negotiations were underway. The clock is ticking and nothing less than the future of the Union is at stake. What will Lincoln do to ensure that future is slavery free?

As it turns out, a whole lot. I have to admit that I was impressed with Lincoln’s political acumen which I didn’t know much about. He was often underestimated by his contemporaries who thought him an uneducated rube from the sticks but in fact even if he was self-educated he was shrewd and had the foresight to understand that a slave economy was a limited economy and that the U.S. would never be able to grow as a nation with one in place. Of course, he also recognized the immorality of it.

But what the movie achieves which to me is even greater is that it brings Lincoln into focus as a man. Not only does Spielberg accomplish this by creating an authentic atmosphere for the tale to be told within, but to allow Day-Lewis – one of the greatest actors of our time – to inhabit the role. I was surprised at the high-pitched voice Day-Lewis uses for Lincoln but contemporary accounts confirm that the Great Emanciptor’s voice was in fact not the sonorous baritone we have come to associate with it. It was more of a tenor.

You get the compassion of the man, but also the frustrations he suffered as both a man – the loss of his son was a blow he never really recovered from – and as a politician. He felt every one of the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred during the war keenly and bore their weight on his shoulders. Lincoln has been characterized as an awkward gangly man and Day-Lewis gets the posture exactly. The performance is so massive, so overpowering that you can’t help but feel that this is going to be accorded an Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s performance in Flight will be as well. Both performances could easily win it, with the slight nod going to Day-Lewis.

Field also gives a performance that will be given consideration come Oscar time. Mary Todd Lincoln is often characterized as someone whose sanity was on the brink (she would eventually be committed to the sanitarium years after her husband’s assassination) but here she is strong and determined, giving Thaddeus Stevens an earful at a White House function. She is a First Lady without a doubt, one who not only saved the White House from dilapidation but defended her husband like  lioness.

There are some great supporting performances here as well, including Jones, Strathairn, Gordon-Levitt and Holbrook at the fore. While I learned a great deal about Lincoln the man, Lincoln the film never fails to be entertaining. It is a bit long and in places long-winded but you wind up feeling like you know the 16th President a little bit better and admiring him a little bit more. This country could use another President like him and sadly, it will be a long time if ever that we get one.

REASONS TO GO: Humanizes an icon. Another Oscar-caliber performance by Day-Lewis (and Field as well). Informative and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: You know how the story ends.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are images of the carnage of war and the brutality of slavery. There’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg spent twelve years (off and on) researching the movie. He recreated Lincoln’s executive mansion office precisely down to the wallpaper and books. The ticking of the pocket watch is Lincoln’s actual watch taken from the Lincoln Historical society – it was the watch he had with him the night of his assassination.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Days

CIVIL WAR LOVERS: .A nice re-creation of the bombardment of Wilmington and the battle thereafter. Also a look at the waning days of the war which are rarely captured in Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Fifth Quarter