Trauma (2017)


Evil can be transcendent.

(2017) Horror (Artsploitation) Catalina Martin, Macarena Carrere, Ximena del Solar, Dominga Bofill, Daniel Antivilo, Eduardo Paxeco, Felipe Rios, Claudio Riveros, Florencia Heredia, Alejandro Trejo, Claudia Aravena, Mauricio Rojas, Max Torres, Felipe Eluti, Catalina Bianchi, Nicolas Rojas, Jose Calderon, Cristian Ramos, Nicolas Platovsky, Faby Zamora. Directed by Lucio A. Rojas

I’m not one to post warnings before I start my review, but this movie demands one. It is absolutely not for everybody. There are graphic depictions of rape, torture and worse. Those who are sensitive to such things should definitely NOT view this movie under any circumstances whatsoever. In fact, you probably shouldn’t read the rest of the review either. Those who think they can manage, read on…

During the height of the reign of Chilean despot Augustin Pinochet, a woman watches her husband be executed in front of her – this after she has been brutally raped by her interrogators. Then, her son (Torres) is brought in. She screams and cries and begs her son to be calm. The lead interrogator injects the boy with some kind of rudimentary Viagra and then the boy is forced to rape his own mother. He continues to rut with her even after she’s been shot dead by the interrogator, who then raises the boy as her own.

In present day Chile, four friends in metropolitan Santiago  – Andrea (Martin), her sister Camila (Carrere), their cousin Magdalena (Bofill) and Magdalena’s girlfriend Julia (del Solar) head out into the country for a girl’s weekend. They end up getting lost and find a bar in the small village which turns out to be a very unfriendly place, but a local named Juan (Antivilo) defuses the situation and gives the girls directions to the hacienda they are renting.

Later on that night, Juan appears at their rental with his son Pedro (Rios) and the two locals beat and rape the girls savagely. In the morning, the two leave but only after one last act of violence. The police soon arrive and the girls are able to describe their attackers. When the cops go to arrest Juan and his son, they are ambushed and only one cop survives. Knowing that there is no getting out except through the sadistic Juan, the women decide to join forces with the cops and beat Juan and Pedro at their own game.

Yes, Juan is the grown-up young boy from the opening scene and much of what Trauma is about is the cycle of violence perpetuated by abuse. This can be applied not only to the brutal abuse of a tyrannical regime but also domestic abuse, although the filmmakers don’t come out and say so. However, the trail markers are very much evident.

Antivilo is magnificent here. His smug smile and sadistic ways make him one of the most memorable movie villains I’ve seen this year Even though he doesn’t snap his finger and make half the population of the universe disappear (although one suspects he would if he could), he clearly enjoys his work so much that he can’t hide his glee at his awfulness. If this were an American film, he’d be getting comparisons to Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear.

The violence here is graphic and unapologetic. Reportedly based on an actual incident, the movie pulls no punches including during the rapes. The actresses reportedly told Rojas that they wanted the actors to be as brutal as possible and the sense of savagery that courses through the scene seems genuine enough. While there are a few digital effects, for the main the effects here are practical.

The movie is a bit long; the build-up to the attack is slow-moving and there are scenes, such as when the four women are dancing in what they think is the privacy of their rented hacienda, that should have been trimmed severely. Also towards the end the movie essentially becomes a standard revenge film; no points for that.

But again, this is a movie that is likely to trigger women who have survived sexual assault and those who are sensitive to such depictions. The rape scenes are hard to watch even if you aren’t triggered. Although the women are beautiful and the nudity is graphic, there is nothing sexy about what happens to these women. The rape scenes can be juxtaposed with scenes of consensual sex which are shot in softer focus and are beautiful to watch; the rape scenes by comparison are in sharper focus and the soundtrack is absent of music during the scene. It’s very stark and effective in that regard.

The question to ask is whether the extreme violence here justifies the message of the movie. There will be some who will call it gratuitous and exploitative and I can’t deny there is a point there. I don’t know if I have an answer to that question; I suppose it will depend on the individual. For myself, I would not think of censoring this nor denying the film’s right to exist. I also think the point could have been made without resorting to the level of depravity the film stoops to. At a certain point, one gets numb to the horrors shown on-screen – but maybe that’s what Rojas intended all along. Maybe that’s ultimately his point.

REASONS TO GO: There is certainly a political point being made here and a valid one at that. Daniel Antivilo is one of the best movie villains this year.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence is brutal and trigger opportunities abound. Some scenes could have used some trimming.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of graphic violence, much of it of a sexual nature. There are also portrayals of rape, torture, and various sex acts with plenty of nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Artsploitation reportedly didn’t submit the film to be distributed by iTunes because they were concerned that all their films might end up being banned from the site.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Spit on Your Grave
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Five

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The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone

Amanda Knox


This is what a thousand yard stare looks like.

This is what a thousand yard stare looks like.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito, Giuliano Mignini, Meredith Kercher, Nick Pisa, Stephanie Kercher, Valter Biscotti, Dr. Stefano Conti, Dr. Carla Vecchiotti, Rudy Dengue, Curt Knox, Arline Kercher. Directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn

 

Most of us have a certain amount of faith in our legal system. We believe that we are protected by the laws that require that preserve the rights of the accused. In other words, if we are innocent, the law should protect us. However, recent history has taught us that it isn’t always the case.

On November 1, 2007, British exchange student Meredith Kercher was raped and murdered in her apartment in Perugia, Italy, an apartment she shared with American student Amanda Knox and two Italian students. Knox, who claimed to have spent the night with her new boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, became the focus of the investigation largely because of her behavior which in the eyes of the Italian police and prosecutors seemed to show a lack of grief over her roommate’s brutal murder.

What followed was a nightmare. The media caught hold of the case and the tabloids, particularly in the UK, had a field day. Knox was characterized as a sex-crazed lunatic and was accused of  murdering her roommate in a sex party gone bad. When the bloody fingerprints of a known burglar named Rudy Guede were found on some of the victim’s things, he was added to the accused along with Raffaele who was considered an accessory. DNA evidence seemed to confirm this and Knox and the two men were convicted.

Except that questions began to rise about the veracity of the DNA evidence and the behavior of the prosecutor Giuliano Mignini who fancied himself a modern-day Columbo and of the Italian police in general. An appeal process was begun and soon suspicions began to circulate that Knox and Sollecito might well be as innocent as they claimed to be. In the meantime the media circus continued.

Equal parts documentary and cautionary tale, the filmmakers show a clear reverence for Errol Morris and his style, incorporating it somewhat. Modern documentaries have become parades of talking heads offset by archival footage and animated re-creations but while those elements are all present here, Amanda Knox comes off as a scripted mystery (albeit one most of us know how it ends) more than a typical doc. In fact, this is as entertaining a documentary as you’re likely to find without sacrificing any of its mandate to educate.

Nick Pisa, a tabloid reporter who supplied the Daily Mirror with much of its headline copy, represents the media here and does he ever have a warped view as what the responsibilities of journalism entail. In an era where the media’s coverage of president-elect Donald Trump has brought a focus onto that very subject, we can see where the “If it bleeds it leads” ethos has taken us and how the media, rather than being a public advocate, is now a lapdog in search of ratings and advertising dollars. It no longer is important to get things right but to get things first. As a former journalist myself, it makes me want to puke.

Mignini also doesn’t come off looking good. An aficionado of detective fiction, after his DNA evidence is debunked he still maintains that Knox is guilty because as he puts it he can see it in her eyes. While Mignini seems a congenial man he certainly doesn’t seem capable of being a prosecutor – at least not a competent one. Of course, it should also be taken with a grain of salt that we are seeing things entirely from the point of view from the Knox camp which also has it’s downside.

Knox has not talked about her ordeal since it ended until now, and she makes a striking presence. I’m not sure if her commentary was scripted or off the cuff but she does come off as an intelligent young woman. Now pushing 30, she is far from the flighty 20-year-old she was when these events occurred. Certainly she made some mistakes in judgment but come on, she was 20. What 20 year old gets every life decision right? Her thousand yard stare, pretty much captured above, is the most haunting image I’ll take from this film. While it should be remembered that Meredith Kercher was ultimately the victim here (and to the filmmaker’s discredit she is little more than a supporting character here as was her family which continues to assert that Knox was the killer) she wasn’t the only one and it seems to me that we are all partially to blame. If we didn’t eat up these lurid and gruesome news stories like Halloween candy the media wouldn’t lose their minds around stories like this – and maybe justice might be more than a possibility.

REASONS TO GO: Less documentary style so much as a whodunit style. It’s very much an indictment of modern mass media as well as the Italian police. We get to hear from Knox herself.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some profanity along with some disturbing crime scene photos and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This marks the 25th original documentary to be distributed by Netflix.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thin Blue Line
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Look of Silence

Hitman: Agent 47


Shoot first and and don't bother to ask questions later.

Shoot first and and don’t bother to ask questions later.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Jurgen Prochnow, Rolf Kanies, Sebastian Hulk, Jerry Hoffman, Dan Bakkedahl, Emilio Rivera, Helena Pieske, Johannes Suhm, Angelababy, Tom Jester, Charlene Beck, Jesse Hergt, Daniel Stockhorst, Mona Pirzad. Directed by Aleksander Bach

Videogames are a multi-billion dollar business. There are tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions of gamers in the United States and around the world. Why, then, are movies based on videogames so bad and why have none been embraced by the gaming community? One theory is that gaming is an interactive medium whereas watching movies is a passive undertaking. Gamers prefer to influence their games, make decisions, determine the shape of the story. They can’t do that in a movie.

Which is horse hockey. Sure, gamers prefer an interactive medium, but that pre-supposes that gaming is the only medium they subscribe to. In fact evidence points to gamers also being readers as well as moviegoers. The reason that gamers can’t get behind movies based on games is because the studios, notorious for not understanding games or gamers, put what can only be described as a cursory (no pun intended) effort behind the film adaptations and the results are movies that aren’t just bad videogame adaptations but just bad period.

Take Hitman: Agent 47 for example. Games are by their nature cinematic and one gets the sense that Bach actually understands this; the movie is beautifully rendered, mainly lensed in Singapore (which is a city of fantastic architecture) and Berlin. The look of the movie is sleek and futuristic. There are some shots of a bikini-wearing woman slowly entering an infinity pool at the top of an exclusive Singapore hotel at dusk; cobalt blues, neon reds and greens blend to give the scene a surreal urban glow. However, this shot is also a microcosm for what’s wrong with the movie; the shot only exists for us to see Hannah Ware in a bikini. She has no reason to be swimming at that moment and it’s not germane to the plot.

The plot consists of Agent 47 (Friend), a genetically engineered assassin who is smarter, faster and stronger than the average human. He is on the hunt for Katia (Ware), a young woman who has shall we say hidden talents. What he’s really after is her father Dr. Litvenko (Hinds), who originated the Agent program. Many have tried to duplicate his work without success; one multinational corporation – known only by the obviously non-sinister nomenclature of The Syndicate, really wants an Agent. An army of them, in fact and their director, the Belgian Le Clerq (Kretschmann, a German) has sent a genetically modified assassin, John Smith (Quinto) to fetch the girl and find out what she knows. However 47, with a barcode tattooed on the back of his bald head, has his own agenda.

The story is weak and cliche and to be honest, I think that the studios really believe that the gaming community has to be pandered to rather than giving them stories that have depth and innovation. It hasn’t occurred to them that gamers are used to vast universes with complex back stories and games that not only challenge the gamer to think but require him/her to. Videogames are not all shoot-em-ups or football simulations.

This is a beautiful looking film, with lovely cityscapes and urban environments. The syndicate’s headquarters is all glass and fiberglass, with computer terminals the size of desks and cubicles that look like they were designed by the same person who does the W Hotel chain.  The film is well-lit for a change, which means that the movie isn’t murky throughout like a lot of action movies seem to be these days.

There are also some nifty action sequences with Syndicate goons going after 47 and Katia, or vice versa. Generally the movie is at it’s best when the action takes center stage. Friend is fairly limber which is necessary when making some of the moves 47 does, pirouetting and tumbling about like a demented gymnast in a suit. The choreography, while not up to some of the great Hong Kong action films, is nonetheless superior to most Hollywood action movies.

Friend goes through the movie essentially trying to play a Vulcan, which he could have gotten pointers from Quinto on. He mostly speaks in a monotone which really isn’t the way to go and from time to time I get the feel that the actor is frustrated with his role. Quinto is a good deal of fun when he’s onscreen, the reliable Hinds does what he can in a standard aging mad scientist role and Ware is pretty much wasted in a role that could have been a strong feminine heroine but isn’t.

This is like a supermodel with a lobotomy; great to look at but really nothing inside which is a shame; there’s a lot of potential in the franchise but the producers and the studio bungled it in a depressing way. The studios will probably go on thinking that the gamer market should be dumbed down to and will pour money into all the wrong things when it comes to videogame adaptations and audiences and critics alike will continue to go on thinking that the studios don’t have a clue what to do with these franchises, which is a frustrating situation for those who’d love to see some really good movies come out of these great video game franchises. Why is it that Hollywood can make great movies out of comic books but not of video games? I think that someone like Blizzard or Square Enix will have to do what Marvel did – create their own film division – before we see that happen.

REASONS TO GO: Visually impressive. Quinto is fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Inane plot. Wasted potential.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul Walker was set to play the title role until his untimely death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 7% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Kingsman: The Secret Service
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meru

Infini


Not the peep show Daniel MacPherson was looking for.

Not the peep show Daniel MacPherson was looking for.

(2015) Science Fiction (Vertical) Daniel MacPherson, Grace Huang, Luke Hemsworth, Bren Foster, Luke Ford, Dwaine Stevenson, Louisa Mignone, Tess Haubrich, Harry Pavildis, Kevin Copeland, Andy Rodoreda, Paul Winchester, Brendan Clearkin, Matt Minto, Belinda Gosbee, Goran D. Kleut, Aileen Beale, Laura Beverley, Louise Dodge. Directed by Shane Abbess

In space, no-one can hear you scream. On a mining station in deep space, everybody can hear you scream. Sometimes, the vacuum of space is preferable to the atmosphere of a mining installation.

By the turn of the 23rd century, Earth’s resources are pretty much gone. Unemployment is rampant and most of the jobs available are service jobs that pay very little. What does pay are the highly dangerous off-planet jobs. Fortunately, a technology has been developed called the Slipstream in which human beings are essentially digitized and sent instantaneously through space to locations all over the galaxy (the science here is a little bit wonky as even if the digital stream traveled at the speed of light, it would still take years and even centuries for the data to arrive). Unfortunately, the fatality rate by using this method of travel is high as the data stream can easily be corrupted.

Whit Carmichael (MacPherson) wants very much to support his wife Lisa (Haubrich) and the child that she is pregnant with. His first day on the job though goes horribly wrong; an infected subject comes through the Slipstream in the West Coast Command Center. In order to escape, Whit is forced to go to Infini, the location of an abandoned mining company which remains the worst deep space disaster in history where over 1,600 miners died while mining a volatile substance.

An elite rescue team is sent to retrieve him (there’s another subplot here but it’s baffling and not really germane and doesn’t get explored much so I’ll abstain from describing it). What they find on Infini is terrible, much worse than they could have ever expected. It appears that the miners all went berserk and killed each other off, brutally and sadistically. Worse yet, there may be an alien presence involved.

This is Aussie director Abbess’ second feature film. He’s been on Hollywood’s radar for seven years and has been attached to some fairly high profile projects in one form or another, few of which actually came to pass (and none with Abbess on board). He proves adept at doing a lot with a little, creating an industrial-looking aesthetic that reminds strongly of the Nostromo from Alien – lots of ducts, pipes and vents. Like that ill-fated vessel, this future looks lived-in.

Although the plot sounds like a standard “bug hunt” sci-fi action feature, there is a little bit more thought put behind it, musing about the human survival instinct and what elements of human behavior would make an impression on alien beings. Whit Carmichael is also not the action hero you might expect; he chooses flight over fight and while discretion is generally the better part of valor, Whit spends a lot of this movie hiding from everyone else.

There is a flood of testosterone coloring this movie; most of the dialogue is shouted or yelled, and often it is some cast member yelling “WHITTTTT!!!!” into the empty hallways of the mining facility. This is a noisy, often abrasive film. Abbess also uses quick cuts to distraction; we are constantly jumping around in point of view. This is the kind of camera move that is best used sparingly and it gets mighty annoying after awhile.

More importantly, Abbess is all over the place with his story. Much of what happens early in the movie (which starts out as a flash forward and then without any sort of explanation the movie shifts to a flash back) is without explanation of any sort until later on in the film and quite frankly you’re often left scratching your head as a viewer and wondering what the heck is going on. You don’t always get answers on that score, either.

Despite all that, the movie has some strong points. It is a good-looking movie and well-lit; often movies of this sort go the underlit route in order to increase the suspense of things jumping out of shadows. Most of the time, we see whatever is attacking coming. That’s actually kind of refreshing.

So what we have here is a movie that has good intentions but not quite the execution. It starts out as thoughtful science fiction but eventually degenerates into horror action sci-fi that blends Aliens with The Thing – not too shabby to be compared to those movies I grant you, but it fails to live up to either of them…or its own promise.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful premise. Nice cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Often confusing and incomprehensible story. Way too much shouting and testosterone.
FAMILY VALUES: Extreme, bloody violence and plenty of rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: MacPherson is the host of Australia’s version of Dancing With the Stars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pandorum
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Lambert and Stamp

Unbroken


I've got some good news and some bad news...

I’ve got some good news and some bad news…

(2014) True Life Drama (Universal) Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Takamasa Ishihara, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Maddalena Ischiale, Vincenzo Amato, John Magaro, Luke Treadaway, Louis McIntosh, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy, John D’Leo, Alex Russell, Jordan Patrick Smith, Spencer Lofranco, Stephen J. Douglas, Morgan Griffin. Directed by Angelina Jolie

Live doesn’t treat us all the same way. Some people it throws greater challenges to than others. While we often think of the things life hurls at ourselves personally as things that are enormous obstacles at least to us, there are people who, when we see what life has thrown at them we can all agree they had a really rough time of it.

Louis Zamperini (O’Connell) was a bombardier in the Pacific theater during World War II. Before that, he had been something of a hooligan as a child (Valleroy), picked on for his Italian heritage but convinced by his brother Pete (D’Leo) to try out for the track team. Louis is a strong runner and eventually makes the U.S. Olympic team and has the highest finish of any American in the 5,000 meter at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He’s expected to medal in 1940, but by then the world was otherwise occupied.

While out on a search and rescue mission, the plane he’s on basically falls apart, three of the four engines fail and the pilot is forced to ditch the plane into the Pacific. Three crewmen survive the crash – Pete (Gleeson), Mac (Wittrock) and Louis. The men are adrift for 47 days and are eventually picked up. Unfortunately, they are picked up by the Japanese navy.

Taken as prisoners of war, the men are separated and Louis is sent to a camp where the vicious Corporal Watanabe (Ishihari) is in charge. A petulant man used to wealth and privilege, he is seething that he couldn’t get an officer’s position and is instead relegated to duty he considers beneath him. He takes it out on Louis, an Olympic athlete who is already far more successful in his life than Watanabe, whom the prisoners have nicknamed the Bird, has been. Louis is often singled out for savage beatings and cruel punishments. What he endures is far more than most of us would be physically able to and survive, but Louis isn’t like most of us.

Jolie had been taken by the bestselling book based on Louis’ experiences and had been amazed to find out that Zamperini’s home was in sight of her own Southern California abode. The two became friends and Jolie was determined to make this movie about his life. Unfortunately, the real Zamperini passed away in 2014 well before the film was released, although he did live long enough to see a rough cut of the film in the hospital shortly before he passed away.

Jolie has a good eye as a director and her first film in that capacity, In the Land of Milk and Honey was an encouraging debut. There were some decisions here that she made that I don’t think worked in the film. For example, the first sequence in the movie is Louis and his crew on a bombing run. The scene highlights Jolie’s strengths as a director, keeping the camera inside the plane for the most part, giving us an idea of what it’s like to be in a tin tube being shot at while trying to complete a precision bombing run. The scene is very compelling and tense and yet Jolie chooses that moment to break away and do a flashback of Louis’ boyhood shenanigans. That’s all well and good but what she wound up doing was undercutting the audience’s connection to the scene. She would have been better served in this case to tell the story in a more linear fashion and skip the flashbacks but in her defense, flashbacks have become a much more common element in films over the past few years. Some films shouldn’t have them.

O’Connell has to carry the film and he does a credible job. He shows a great deal of potential (and has already gotten a couple of high-profile roles in upcoming movies largely due to his performance here) and while he didn’t knock it out of the park completely, he did get a solid base hit and I don’t doubt there are some good things to come from this young English actor.

The mostly-male supporting cast has some good young talent, including Gleeson, Wittrock and Garrett Hedlund as a sympathetic American officer in the P.O.W. camp. A lot of focus will be on Ishihara as Watanabe; the baby-faced young actor brings out the monster in Watanabe, giving him three dimensions when the tendency would be to make him less human. Making him more human really makes him more of a monster, in my opinion.

This has to be one of the bigger disappointments of 2014. I was really looking forward to this film and thought it might well be an Oscar contender, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. A lot of people hated on this movie which was why we got to this movie so late in the season, but it was a lot better than I’d heard it was, but still not as good as I’d hoped it would be. Zamperini was an extraordinary man and definitely deserved to have his story told. I just wish that the movie based on his life could have been a bit better.

REASONS TO GO: O’Connell does a fine job. Zamperini was an amazing gentleman deserving of a cinematic biography.
REASONS TO STAY: The flashbacks aren’t as organic as they should have been. Too many platitudes.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence including scenes of intense brutality in the POW camp along with some brief rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ishihari is actually the Japanese pop star Miyavi but his iMDB credits list him under his given name. He actually had a very difficult time with some of the cruelties he had to perform and actually vomited on-set during one scene. The real Watanabe was unrepentant about his actions in a 1998 interview on the occasion of the Olympic torch run depicted in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Railway Man
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Blackthorn

The Attack


Sometimes what you don't know CAN hurt you.

Sometimes what you don’t know CAN hurt you.

(2012) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Ali Suliman, Uri Gavriel, Reymond Amsalem, Karim Saleh, Evgenia Dodena, Dvir Benedek, Abdallah El Akal, Ezra Dagan, Nathalie Rozanes, Ofri Fuchs, Michael Warshaviak, Eli Gorenstein, Vladimir Friedman, Esther Zewko, Ruba Salameh, Ramzi Makdessi, Ihab Salameh, Hassan Yassine, Nisrine Seksek. Directed by Ziad Doueiri

The person that we should know best is our spouse. In an ideal relationship, there are no secrets (at least no serious ones) and we can safely say that we know the person we are married to better than anyone else does – perhaps better than we know ourselves.

Dr. Amin Jaafari is a surgeon of Palestinian descent who has made a place for himself in Israeli society. He and his beautiful wife Siham (Amsalem) live in a lovely home and are accepted by their Jewish neighbors and colleagues. When he becomes the first Palestinian to win a major award for medicine in Israel, he figures he’s made it, although he’s a bit miffed that Siham isn’t there to share in his moment of glory after she goes to Nazareth to visit her family.

The next day, a bomb explodes in a nearby restaurant. 17 people die and dozens are injured. Dr. Jaafari is busy trying to save the dying and help the wounded. He sees firsthand the results of terrorism and doesn’t like what he sees. He goes home and falls into an exhausted sleep but is awakened early in the morning by a call from his friend Raveed (Benedek), an Israeli police officer, summoning him to the hospital. He figures there are more casualties but that is not why he is there. He is brought down to the morgue and is shocked to discover that one of the bodies from the bombing is that of his wife Siham. Half of her body has been blown away. The good doctor faints dead away.

His nightmare is just beginning however. It turns out that the authorities suspect that Siham was a suicide bomber. At first Dr. Jaafari is incredulous. Siham a terrorist? No….HELL No! Nobody knows his wife like he does after all. Dr. Jaafari is certain that when the terrorists release their video as they inevitably do that she will be exonerated. However Captain Moshe (Gavriel) is certain and puts the doctor through an intense interrogation until at last they are satisfied that he knew nothing of the attack. However his neighbors and friends aren’t so sure and distance themselves from him or worse, vandalize his home. His colleague Kim (Dodena) and Raveed stick up for him but Dr. Jaafari is being backed into a corner. Finally when he is given tangible evidence of his wife’s guilt, he journeys to Nablus to find out how she could do such a thing – and who was responsible for turning her into a monster.

As you can tell from the synopsis this is a very intense subject matter. Suliman, an Israeli actor of Arabic descent, has appeared in a couple of high-profile Hollywood projects (Kingdom of Lies, Body of Lies and the upcoming Lone Survivor) and has also appeared in some very good local productions (primarily Paradise Now, Lemon Tree and Zaytoun). This is his best performance to date. It is wrenching to watch his anguish but also his rage. How could he have missed it? Why did she do this awful thing?

To answer those questions he has to go to Nablus and he finds himself in the awkward position of being the husband to a martyr whose death has been glorified. The more he talks to those who may or may not have had anything to do with her choice to do this monstrous thing, the more it becomes obvious that these people are intractable; reason doesn’t enter into it. Dr. Jaafari isn’t trusted and while his wife’s sacrifice keeps him from getting a bullet through his brain, neither does it give him any clout whatsoever when exploring the chain of events that led to her fateful decision.

In the end it was her visit to a site of an Israeli aerial attack that led her on that terrible path. While the movie does get a little slow getting to Nablus, once it’s there we realize that part of the problem in the Middle East is that they are in this awful spiral which neither side will put a halt to by simply saying “We will not retaliate. We won’t escalate. We will just stop.” It is a kind of insanity, one born out of hatred and fear. One idiot reviewer chastised the film for not providing answers. Seriously dude? Some questions have no answers. Sometimes the truth is unpleasant and horrible. One sees a movie like this and understands that the hope for peace in the Middle East is like picking out the right grain of sand on a beach. It requires patience and  perhaps more time than a single life can survive. There are no answers here and maybe Dr. Jaafari isn’t asking the right questions. Either way this is the kind of movie that will generate a great deal of dialogue on its own – a movie that works equally well in the heart and in the head. Talk about a precious grain of sand on the beach…

REASONS TO GO: Strong performance by Suliman. Raises some intriguing questions.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the images are pretty disturbing, there’s some violence and a bit of sexuality and foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only Arabic or Muslim country to show the film has been Morocco. Many cited the reason for that was that it was filmed in Israel.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Day Night Day Night

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Heartbeats