The Wall (2017)


Everything is more intense when you’re under fire.

(2017) War Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli. Directed by Doug Liman

 

In the desert, there is not much beyond scorching sun, deep blue sky and wind-whipped sand. It is dusty, hot and dry. Humans can survive there but far from comfortably. It is a terrible place to have a war.

And yet we’ve spent the last 16 years and counting in the desert at war. In this movie, it is 2007 and the war in Iran is “winding down” as the opening credits inform us. Remembering that this is the era of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” faux pas of George W. Bush, the movie begins on a wry, humorous note. We see that there are two Marines – Shane Matthews (Cena), a sniper and “Eyes” Isaac (Taylor-Johnson), his spotter – observing a pipeline construction site. Their banter is the kind between brothers or bar buddies; occasionally vulgar, snarky for certain but affectionate nonetheless.

All the men working on the pipeline are dead. The spotter thinks they are all head shots; the sniper is not so sure. If the former is right, then there is a highly skilled sniper in the neighborhood. If the latter is correct, then it was likely an insurgent patrol that surprised the construction workers and is likely long gone. The two men have been sitting in the hot son in full camouflage for 22 hours. Matthews has about had enough. There has been no movement. Nobody is there.

He heads down to the construction site to make sure and to request that the two be picked up and returned to base. There is a crack-thump and down goes the Marine. His buddy runs out to help him and crack-thump he’s hit as well. Isaac is forced to take shelter behind a crumbling wall, one which is barely standing on its own and threatens to come down on top of him if the wind gets too high.

He is forced to take the bullet out of his own leg in a squirm-inducing moment and then needs to look to the survival of himself and his buddy who appears to be unconscious or dead. The outlook is grim; the radio antenna has been damaged so all he can pick up are people who are close by; his canteen has also been shot and the water drained out. The dehydration combined with his serious wound is likely to kill him before base camp comes looking for them.

At first things take a turn for the better; Isaac gets in contact with a patrol team who must be close by but when they keep asking for his exact position, he begins to get suspicious, suspicions which are confirmed when the man on the radio tells him that he is the sniper who has shot him. The two strike up a conversation; it turns out that the sniper is the legendary Juba, who has 75 confirmed American kills to his credit. He seems eager to get to know Isaac who wants nothing more than to figure out where Juba is so that he can shoot him.

It becomes a game of cat and mouse with Juba threatening to shoot off the face of Matthews if Isaac doesn’t answer the questions that Juba poses, the most important being “Why are you still here?” That’s a question Americans have been asking as well.

Liman has constructed a taut three-person movie that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats from minute one. It’s a short but sweet movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome and although there is a bit of a lull in the middle, mostly keeps the tension at a high level throughout. The movie is shot so well you can almost feel the sand getting in your eyes.

There is an authentic feel to the film from a military standpoint. I’m not ex-military myself but the characters act as I would think well-trained Marines would; they are imperfect and have their moments when they let their guard down but nonetheless they (particularly Taylor-Johnson) act with a sense that the training has kicked in as the situation is assessed, immediate needs seen to and a plan to get out of a bad situation put together. We see all of this from the comfort of our theater seats (or our living room sofa as the case may be) and likely feel quite grateful that it is not us cringing beneath that poorly constructed wall.

Cena spends most of the movie lying face down in the dirt but this is maybe his best performance of his fairly brief acting career. The WWE superstar has always impressed me with his screen presence but over time he has developed some real acting skills. I’m not sure he’s at the level of a Dwayne Johnson yet but as wrestlers turned thespians go, he certainly has the tools to construct a pretty satisfying career and maybe more down the line.

Taylor-Johnson has been in my opinion on the fringe of breaking it big with some fairly good performances in fairly good movies, but nothing has really brought him to the A-list quite yet. Much of the film rests on his shoulders as he is interacting with a voice on his radio more than with a live actor as Cena is mostly unconscious in the film. That takes a lot of chops and fortunately Taylor-Johnson has them. We shall see if this finally puts him over the top and gets him that role that will elevate him into the next level.

This is a movie in which sound plays an unusually important part and Liman’s sound team comes through in spades. From the sound of the wind whipping the sand around, the crack-thump of the gunshots and the metallic bangs of the construction site, the sounds make the movie. We really don’t have a lot to look at other than endless vistas of sand and the half-finished construction site. We need the additional stimulation and we get it.

Amazon Studios helped to produce this, likely with a goal of getting their Prime users to watch this at home, but this is one of those rare movies that I think despite having an intimate setting should be seen in a theater where the outstanding sound work and impressive visuals will work best. This hasn’t gotten a ton of buzz amongst indie film fans but it deserves some. This is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out and at least here in Orlando is playing in enough theaters that there’s no excuse not to find it.

REASONS TO GO: The expected route is not taken. Taylor-Johnson and Cena; who knew? There is a lot of authenticity to this film.
REASONS TO STAY: The middle third is a little bit slow. Juba as a disembodied voice lacks menace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of salty language and a fair amount of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicholas Irving, the Army Rangers sniper who served as technical adviser for the film, was nicknamed “The Reaper” during his tour of duty.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Phone Booth
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Last Shaman

Edge of Tomorrow


Tom Cruise sees the initial box office numbers.

Tom Cruise sees the initial box office numbers.

(2014) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way, Kick Gurry, Franz Drameh, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Masayoshi Haneda, Noah Taylor, Terence Maynard, Lara Pulver, Madeline Mantock, Assly Zandry, Martin Hyder, Mairead McKinley, Andrew Neil, Beth Goddard, Anna Botting. Directed by Doug Liman

What a difference a day makes. Sometimes, a single day can make all the difference.

Major William Cage (Cruise) is one of those slick PR types that the army employs to sell war. This war, however, is unlike any other war we’ve ever fought; a mysterious race of aliens has invaded and quickly taken over Europe and Asia. The Mimics, as we call them, have withstood the might of our combined armies and now are poised to cross the ocean and take on the Americas. Much like another war half a century ago, the Americans know that they need to stop them in Europe or else have them hit us at full strength.

Cage is meeting up with Irish General Brigham (Gleeson) of the United Defense Force but the meeting doesn’t go well and the exasperated General orders Cage to the front. Cage balks at it and tries to BS his way out of it but ends up being tasered and sent to the front lines anyway. There, he meets up with MSgt Farrell (Paxton), a gung ho Kentuckian and the somewhat sullen J Company as they are put on massive troop transport helicopters and ferried over to Normandy. Unlike the previous invasion of that beach, the Mimics are expecting them and the invasion is disastrous. Cage is killed in the first five minutes.

Except he wakes up, on exactly the same day – right after he was tasered. And things unfold exactly the same. And he wakes up again. This time, however, he does things a little differently – and he survives longer, getting to meet Rita, the so-called Angel of Verdun who just about single-handedly won the only victory the UDF has had. Rita immediately realizes what’s going on and brings him to see Dr. Carter (Taylor) who knows more about the Mimics than just about anybody alive.

Just before he died, Cage had met up with a super-rare Mimic Alpha, and killed the damn thing, getting its blood all over him. That had somehow given Cage the same power the Mimics have or rather their Omega creature – the ability to re-set time. That’s why the Mimics are unstoppable; they know what humans are up to because they see it before resetting time, then react accordingly during the replay. However, now, it is us that has the advantage and if we can find the Omega and destroy it, the war will be ours. However, Cage has to figure a way to get off that beach.

Based on a Japanese manga called All You Need a Kill (a much better title although Da Queen prefers the ad tag line – “Live. Die. Repeat.” as a movie title better), astute moviegoers will recognize the plot conceit as being the same as Groundhog Day. However, the similarities are merely superficial. Whereas the older movie was a comedy in which Bill Murray wanted to get the girl, here Tom Cruise is out to save the world. And get the girl.

Liman, one of the most underrated and outstanding action directors out there (he made The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith among others), continues his fine work with the battle sequence here that recalls that of Saving Private Ryan only it isn’t nearly as intense or chaotic. The parallels between this war with the Mimics and the Second World War are heavy-handed indeed.

Cruise remains as bankable a movie star as there is out there although this is quite a different role for him, at least initially. Cage is a bit of a con artist, shucking and jiving his way through the army and willing to do anything to keep from going into actual battle. He’s a bit of a coward and a whole lot of arrogant, the kind of political survivor that always manages to land on his feet – until the aliens put him face-down. Eventually he grows a pair and becomes the hero we’re used to, but it is a slow process.

Blunt is also playing against type. Generally she plays a spunky but somewhat emotionally fragile sort but here she is all business and a credible action hero of her own. In the manga her character is sometimes known as The Bitch of War and that’s not far from the truth; she’s hard, merciless and without fear. She knows we’re losing this war and only one thing will prevent it – and her opportunity had slipped right through her fingers.

This isn’t a space opera – we never get a sense of how the aliens arrived here and what they want. The somewhat insectoid Mimics have lots of tentacles that owe something to the creature Giger created in Alien and they are terrifying. Kudos to the creature design team who also came up with the Alpha and Omega creatures as well. We’ve seen some decent alien designs in recent years although alien invasion movies have tended to be very poor as of late.

This is a little bit more thoughtful than most Hollywood summer blockbusters and that isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Yeah, sometimes all I really need is a loud movie with absolutely no thoughts in it at all, but this isn’t that. You are left to ponder the significance of each and every day with an eye towards learning how to use that pattern to your own advantage. I found it to be on par with the better-reviewed films of this summer and while the box office hasn’t been scintillating thus far for the movie, it is on course to at least make its production budget back and then some and in a crowded summer of stronger quality films than we’ve seen in recent years, we have to appreciate all the movies that aren’t just formulaic and either lacking in creativity, over-relying on CGI or pandering to its audience. Edge of Tomorrow does none of that.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining. Cruise plays against type.

REASONS TO STAY: Borrows a little from Starship Troopers, Battle: Los Angeles and Groundhog Day.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of sci-fi war violence, a fair amount of salty language and some sexually suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The failed invasion is depicted as taking place in Normandy. In the United States, the film’s official release date was June 6, 2014 – the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Trip to Italy

New Releases for the Week of June 6, 2014


Edge of TomorrowEDGE OF TOMORROW

(Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Jeremy Piven, Ciaran Hinds, Noah Taylor, Kirk Gurry, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way. Directed by Doug Liman

In the not-so-distant future, the Earth is being invaded by a vicious alien species intent on overrunning the indigenous inhabitants – us. Despite our own military advances, they are seemingly unbeatable, able to counter our every move. Into this miasma of violence and despair is dropped an officer with no combat experience. During a disastrous invasion of alien-held territory, he is killed within five minutes – only to wake up again just before the invasion. The same events unfold and he wakes up again. He begins to try to do things differently – and to his surprise, the outcome is altered somewhat. When he meets up with a woman who has been through a similar experience, he realizes that he may be the key to winning the war. Based on the acclaimed Japanese graphic novel All You Need is Kill.

See the trailer, a promo and footage from the premiere here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material)

The Fault in Our Stars

(20th Century Fox) Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe, Laura Dern.Two young people who definitely fall into the “strong independent outsider” category share an acerbic sense of humor, a love for the unusual and a nearly pathological refusal to accept anything normal fall deeply in love. Unfortunately, they both share one more thing – cancer. Realizing that they could have a very limited time left, they choose to embrace the time they have and live life to the fullest while they still can. Based on the bestselling novel for young people by John Green.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language)

Holiday

(Reliance) Akshay Kumar, Sonakshi Sinha, Govinda, Dipendra Sharma. This Hindi remake of the 2012 Tamil film Thuppakki  features Kumar as a soldier who while on vacation becomes involved in weeding out a crime ring.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Night Moves

(Cinedigm)  Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Skarsgard, Alia Shawkat.Three ecoterrorists with different background formulate the plan to blow up a controversial dam. Afterwards their actions begin to unravel their resolve as the unintended consequences create an atmosphere of paranoia and doubt among the trio of young people.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for some language and nudity)

Words and Pictures

(Roadside Attractions) Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Bruce Davison, Amy Brennerman. Two teachers at an exclusive prep school – one an art teacher who can no longer paint, the other an English teacher who no longer writes – get into a war over which is more important to society, words or pictures. As the students get drawn into their good-natured conflict, the two wounded souls begin to grow attracted to each other. The review for this Florida Film Festival feature can be found here.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material including nude sketches, language and some mature thematic material)

Fair Game (2010)


Fair Game

Sean Penn may look intense but all he hears is "blah, blah, blah."

(2010) True Life Drama (Summit) Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Noah Emmerich, Liraz Charchi, Nicholas Sadler, Tom McCarthy, Ty Burrell, Jessica Hecht, Norbert Leo Butz, Rebecca Rigg, David Andrews, Bruce McGill, Sam Shepard, Polly Holliday. Directed by Doug Liman

 

When the story broke, it was almost something out of a John Le Carre novel. An American spy, outed in a newspaper and get this – orchestrated by her own government who were trying to discredit her husband who had written a report that basically accused that government of going to war over reasons that were false, that the administration knew were false.

Sounds like a novel, but this is what really happened to Valerie Plame (Watts). She was an operative for the CIA with expertise in the Middle East which at the time is where most of our intelligence efforts had shifted to with the fall of the Communist bloc. However to her neighbors, she worked a boring job in DC and was married to Joe Wilson (Penn), the former U.S. Ambassador to Niger.

He is contracted to do a fact-finding mission there to determine if Saddam Hussein is purchasing weapons-grade Uranium from Niger. Wilson checks with his contacts and not only is it not likely that they could be getting the uranium, it’s not physically possible. Satisfied, he returns home and presents his findings to the CIA who are busy amassing intelligence that the White House has ordered in order to justify their impending invasion of Iraq.

His wife Valerie is as well, trying to get hold of Iraqi nuclear scientists to debrief. They’re all telling her the same thing – there is no WMD program, it was dismantled after the first Gulf War. She is putting some of her contacts in danger so she is arranging for them to leave the country.

Then in the State of the Union address, President Bush refers to Uranium that Iraq is buying from Niger for their weapons program. Wilson is at first puzzled and then incensed; and he publishes an op-ed piece in the New York Times disputing the President’s facts.

Shortly thereafter in another newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Robert Novak publishes a piece naming his wife as a covert CIA operative, quoting highly-placed sources in the White House (who allegedly turned out to be Richard Armitage, although Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are all looked at as possible sources as well in the film).

From then on, Plame’s position at the CIA was untenable. She was forced to resign and her contacts were compromised, with a number of them paying for her outing with their lives. Wilson was livid; he wanted to fight the situation, believing that this was a vindictive government functionary getting back at him through his wife (a theory which many hold to be true).

Plame was a little bit more low-key. However the strain was telling, not only in her relationships with her neighbors, friends and family (there’s a great scene with her parents, played by Shepard and Holliday) and her husband. The media scrutiny (which Wilson embraced to a certain extent) threatened to tear their marriage apart.

Liman who directed Mr. and Mrs. Smith about fictional secret agents gets to play with a real one here. This isn’t a spy film though; it’s more of a political thriller and even though we know how it ends up (not a spoiler but we wind up going to war anyway). Liman gives the movie the pacing of a suspense thriller despite it being a biographical drama and that’s definitely the right way to go.

Of course, he benefits from having Penn, one of the best actors in the business and he delivers a typically outstanding performance. Joe is a bit of a hothead and a blowhard with a deep-seated sense of right and wrong; when he sees something that offends that sense he goes after it. He speaks his mind, sometimes at the expense of friendships. He does have some failings – he likes the spotlight a little too much for Valerie’s liking – but his intelligence and passion are undeniable.

Watts has less to work with than Penn does but she proves able with a part that has some subtlety to it missing from the more in-your-face Joe. She is more concerned with holding her family together but that’s hard to do when you’re getting threatening phone calls and neighbors asking about your espionage activities. Plame also has to deal with the country she worked so hard to protect literally betraying her and throwing her to the wolves.

The movie is largely based on the two memoirs written separately by Joe and Valerie and Liman rather than couching the film behind aliases here names names which is to be admired. I’m sure there are people in the previous administration who think this movie is beyond the pale but hey, you reap what you sow after all.

The overall tone is pretty dry to be honest but there is a certain courage of its own convictions. Yes, the movie certainly takes a specific viewpoint and if you disagree with it you probably won’t think much of the film, Sean Penn or no Sean Penn. Also, please understand what you see here isn’t gospel; while the Wilsons vetted the movie and what they understood was happening at the time is what we see. What went on behind the scenes is pure conjecture and while it’s based on educated guesses, chances are we’ll never really know how things went down.

Still, the movie at its best shows the effect of this kind of scandal on a family and that’s when I really enjoyed it. The political discussion while interesting is ultimately just an empty gesture that really won’t contribute much to your understanding of the actual events; perhaps we all see what we want to in these situations.

WHY RENT THIS:  A look at the inside of a scandal most of us barely knew through the news.  Penn and Watts give typically strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the facts from the movie have been disputed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words but not much else to impede family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the “Freedom of Expression” award from the National Board of Review.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In a somewhat surprising and welcome move, the audio commentary is provided by Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame – the real ones.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $24.2M on a $22M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The General’s Daughter