The Oath


The most awkward Thanksgiving dinner EVER!

(2018) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Max Greenfield, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Jay Duplass, Carrie Brownstein, Chris Ellis, John Ducey, Jon Lovett, Priah Ferguson, Henry Kaufman, Brian Guest, Matt Conboy, Ithamar Enriquez, Brett Lapeyrouse, Molly Erdman. Directed by Ike Barinholtz

 

We live in an extraordinary time, and not in a good way. Our country is divided as it hasn’t been since the War Between the States. Politics have become a blood feud with two intractable sides refusing to listen to each other or admit that the tactics of their side could be anything but above reproach. Politics are dividing friends and family like never before.

Chris (I. Barinholtz) is one of those progressive sorts who watches cable news like a hawk and this, predictably, keeps him in a constant state of anger. He doesn’t have discussions so much as he has apocalyptic rants, quite sure that the latest thing the left is doing signals the end of life as we know it. However, this time he has good reason: the President (never identified in the film but c’mon – it’s meant to be Trump) has ordered that all Americans sign an oath of loyalty. Not to the country, but to the President.

Of course, Chris loses his mind and swears he’d sooner gouge out his eye with a spoon than sign this thing. His savvy and level-headed wife Kai (Haddish) agrees with him but in a less strident tone and at a less ear-splitting volume. The deadline for signing is Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving. It so happens that Chris and Kai are having Thanksgiving dinner this year at their home with Chris’ somewhat clueless parents (Ellis, Dunn), his conservative-leaning brother Pat (J. Barinholtz), Pat’s similarly right wing girlfriend Abby (Hagner) whose name Chris defiantly refuses to say correctly, and his sister Alice (Brownstein) who tends to side with Chris.

The dinner predictably escalates into armed warfare between Chris and his brother’s girlfriend as the news shows images of protesters getting shot and left-leaning websites report that a government agency called the  Citizen’s Protection Unit (CPU) has been taking protesters away, never to be seen again. Chris’ paranoia reaches redline fever when two CPU agents, Mason (Magnussen) and Peter (Cho) show up at his door. Then things go from bad to worse.

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie yet that captures the ongoing political division of this country as this one does. Barinholtz, a first-time filmmaker, wrote and directed this and while you can see some of the rookie mistakes – the tonal shift between the first half which is more comedic and the second half, which is more of a thriller along the lines of The Purge. The dichotomy between the two is a little bit jarring to say the least. In many ways the second half is a bit surreal, going in a completely unexpected direction and detracting from the power of the first half..

Barinholtz though coaxes a magnificent performance from Haddish, in my opinion her best to date. She’s caught in the middle between her hair-trigger husband and her equally passionate brother-in-law’s girlfriend. Chris doesn’t act civilly all that often; you either agree with him or you’re a fascist and Chris is one of those liberals who thinks they know what’s right better than anyone. Kai is the mitigating factor that keeps Chris from getting too toxic, although it’s obvious that the job of being his buffer is wearing on her.

While it is clear that the filmmakers’ sympathies lie with the left, they at least have a clear enough head to recognize that the progressive side has its own share of hostility. Much of what we see onscreen are things I’ve witnessed first-hand among liberal as well as conservative friends. While the ending is a bit far-fetched, at least it leaves us with the hope that we’ll be able to learn to talk to each other again someday. Hope is a precious commodity these days and this movie at least has that, although it is cynical in places to the point of head-exploding madness. Hope is something to be cultivated and yes, discovered in movies as well. As for me, I hope Barinholtz continues to make movies; he shows he has a real talent and talent like his should be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: This is possibly the finest performance ever by Tiffany Haddish.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Barinholtz was once a member of the MadTV troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Idiocracy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Stella’s Last Weekend

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John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls


Senator John McCain of Arizona; portrait of a maverick.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) John McCain, Joe Biden, John McCain IV, Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Carol McCain, Hilary Clinton, Grant Woods, David Brooks, Mark Salter, Doug McCain, Frank Gambaa, Joe McCain, Andy McCain, John Fer, Rick Davis, Bill McInturff, Cindy McCain. Directed by George Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt

 

Most people who follow American politics are pretty well familiar with the salient points of Arizona Senator John McCain’s life; the son of a four-star admiral (and also the grandson of one), he became a Navy flyer during the Vietnam War. Captured by the Viet Cong, he was held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years, subjected to repeated torture and abuse. Finally weakened to the point where he could no longer take it, he signed a bogus confession – an act that has regretted ever since – and returned home to take on a political career. Running twice unsuccessfully for the Presidency, he won the Republican nomination in 2008 and unwisely selected then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, an act that changed the political landscape of the United States and not for the better. Last year, he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer.

It is difficult to review a documentary about a man without reviewing the man himself. Those who read my reviews regularly should be aware that I am a progressive liberal so politically McCain and I disagree about a lot of things. I have never considered him anything less than an honorable man however; famously, he showed up for a vote that kept the Senate from passing  a bill that would have dismantled the Affordable Care Act and put in an absolute abomination of a replacement plan in its place, breaking ranks with his fellow Republicans and earning the wrath of President Trump who clearly dislikes the Arizona senator.

The movie utilizes a lot of archival footage, particularly from McCain’s Vietnam era, and a lot of interviews with political foes, allies, friends and family. Some of McCain’s closest friends come from the other side of the aisle; Joe Biden, for example and Joe Lieberman whom he toyed with asking to be his running mate in ’08 before settling on Palin. The movie also covers one of his more public blunders, his role in the Keating Five scandal which nearly marked the end of his political career. McCain is honest about his involvement and while he was exonerated of any wrongdoing, he admits freely to making an error in judgement which he was censured for.

Clearly the filmmakers admire McCain which I believe most Americans do; even the left respect his service and his willingness to vote his conscience, something few members of either party are willing to do these days. It’s not strictly speaking hagiographic but it is fawning in places and certainly admiring throughout. Then again, it’s hard not to admire a man like John McCain…oh, wait a minute, there I go reviewing the man rather than the movie. It’s a pretty decent documentary. HBO subscribers, particularly those of a political bent, should check it out.

REASONS TO GO: This doesn’t feel like a puff piece at all.
REASONS TO STAY: It seems to be a story that is still being written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers to the book by Ernest Hemingway which is McCain’s favorite.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mitt
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Depths

Heaven Without People (Ghada’a El Eid)


Cheers!

(2017) Drama (MC Distributors) Samira Sarkis, Farah Shaer, Nadim Abou Samra, Laeticia Semaan, Hussein Hijazi, Ghassan Chemali, Wissam Boutros, Toni Habib, Jenny Gebara, Jean Paul Hage,  Mohamed Abbass, Etafar Aweke, Nancy Karam, Ivy Helou, Ziad Majdara, Maria Ziad Jabra. Directed by Lucien Bourjeily

Everyone loves a family gathering – in theory. What could be better than seeing all your loved ones in one place at the same time? Plenty, as it turns out.

Josephine (Sarkis) is the matriarch of a Lebanese Orthodox Christian family. Getting her family together is like pulling teeth; they haven’t been in the same room for a meal for more than two years. It’s Easter Sunday and she has prepared a feast for her children and their spouses (and two grandchildren, one too young to do anything but sleep). The children are in various stages of functional; Serge (Samra) seems to be the most level-headed but he has been dating his girlfriend Rita (Shaer) for three years without any sign of commitment; she is concerned that she might be pregnant which Serge is very much against.

Leila (Semaan) is a strident political firebrand who is very critical about the government for which her father (Boutros) was once employed with. Christine (Karam) is closest to Josephine but is having big problems with her teenage son Sami (Habib). Elias (Hage) is married to Noha (Gebara) and is more than a little bit of a bully; the family treats him with contempt most of the time. Josephine’s maid (Helou) tries to be in the background but she is treated with love by the family.

The conversation turns from politics to religion and tension soon begins to make things a little bit frayed at the table. Josephine then discovers that a large sum of money is missing, money that she and her husband – who despite his apparent vigor is actually in a fragile state of health – desperately need. There’s no way to know who took it other than that it is someone at the dining table. By the end of the meal all of the skeletons will come out of the closet and the things bubbling under the surface will grow into a full-on boil

I liked this movie very much. I believe the great Gene Siskel would have too; movies that are a slice of life, particularly in other cultures, were essentially his favorite kind of films. I love learning about different cultures – the foods they eat, the traditions they hold to, the rituals that a meal brings with it I also enjoy the dynamics of a family (which generally speaking are pretty much the same everywhere) particularly when there is discord. Few families love each other universally all the time. There are always squabbles.

The performances are pretty natural. I don’t know whether the performers are professional actors or amateurs; either way the dynamics in this family are very believable and none of the performers seem to be wooden or stiff; they’re all comfortable in front of the camera which can be a big deal in movies like this one.

The one thing that I had real problems with was the camera movement. Cinematographer Ahmad Al Trabolsi utilizes a hand-held camera and circles the table constantly; while it does add an air of tension to the story it also serves to be distracting and downright annoying. Some fixed camera angles would have benefitted the film and relieved the constant camera movement. I will say that both cinematographer and director did a good job despite the confined and somewhat claustrophobic set (nearly all the movie takes place inside the small apartment of Josephine and her husband). Sometimes directors and cinematographers will make a film look more like a stage play in these kinds of conditions but that didn’t happen here.

The film moves at  slow but steady pace, the tension increasing as the meal progresses and eventually the situation of the missing money is revealed to the rest of the family. The climax is handled very nicely and left me wondering how the family would survive what happened; a great film will leave you concerned for the welfare of its characters and that’s precisely what happened here.

The build-up may be a little too long for attention-challenged viewers but those with the patience to stick with the film will be richly rewarded – the final few scenes are truly amazing. Bourjeily is certainly someone to keep an eye on. If you’re heading down to Miami to catch this festival, this is one you should put on your list. Tickets can be ordered here.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a slow build to a fast boil. A lovely slice of life with a little bit of rot below the surface.
REASONS TO STAY: The handheld camera becomes quite annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourjeily, who got his MFA in film from Loyola Marymount University (my alma mater), is making his feature film debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Call Me By Your Name

The Truth Beneath (Bi-mil-eun eobs-da)


Being a power couple isn’t always enough.

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Ye-jin Son, Ju-hyuk Kim, Yu-hwa Choi, Cheol-woo Han, Eui-sung Kim, Gin-goo Kim, Min-jae Kim, So-hee Kim, Sang-hee Lee, Gene Woo Park, Ji-Hoon Shin. Directed by Kyoug-mi Lee

There aren’t many things worse than a missing child. Your mind is filled with the worst possible case scenario but at the same time you are holding out hope that said child will return home safe and sound. It’s the not knowing that drives us crazy.

Jong-chan (J-h Kim) is a former news anchor running for the Korean national assembly against entrenched politician No Jae-soon (E-s Kim). His wife Yeon-hong (Son) is the perfect political wife; beautiful, loyal, elegant and erudite. On the first day of their campaign however their mercurial teenage daughter Min-jin (Shin) disappears. At first nobody seems to be all that worried; even though Min-jin is an honors student and by all accounts a good girl, she wasn’t always that way.

Yeon-hong is frantic, particularly when her husband’s campaign managers and the police seem unfazed by the girl’s absence. No is making hay on the incident as Jong-chan is running on a family values platform with the ironic catchphrase “Protecting your children.” No shows no shame in pointing out that Jong-chan is having problems protecting his own.

The more that Yeon-hong looks into her daughter’s disappearance, the more troubled she gets. It turns out that Min-jin was a much different girl than her mother believed. She was being bullied at school and had taken up with a kind of pop punk girls band (the music for whom isn’t half bad). She was best friends with Choi Mi-ok (S-h Kim) who seems unnaturally possessive towards her friend. The more Yeon-hong finds out, the more convinced she becomes that the trail to her daughter’s disappearance leads to a shadowy link between her school and her father’s campaign.

This starts out as a political thriller but as the investigation of Yeon-hong continues it becomes more of a standard potboiler. That’s not to say that this isn’t head and shoulders over most of the ilk – there is a lot here to like, chief among them the performance of Son which would be getting her all kinds of notice were this film made in Hollywood.

For those who like acclaimed director Park Chan-woo, Lee is a disciple of the Korean filmmaker and in fact got Chan-woo to co-write the script. There is much of his influence on the film overall, from some of the more taboo elements of the plot (which I won’t reveal here) to the labyrinthine plot that twists and turns through a maze of characters, red herrings and half-glimpsed clues.

Lee has an excellent visual sense which he exercises a little too freely perhaps. There is a surfeit of flashbacks and special effects shots (raindrops frozen in mid-air for example, an Asian staple) to the point where it can be difficult to keep up with the plot. Eventually the audience is left feeling that they don’t have a clue what’s going on which is to say that few of the characters in the film have either.

Still despite the occasional forays into “look ma, I’m directing” territory, the movie is a solid thriller that will keep the viewer guessing while making some occasionally dazzling sequences that will either throw you for a loop or leave you breathless. Korean cinema is an equal to its counterparts in Japan and China although most true cinema buffs already know that. It’s time the world in general discovered that too.

REASONS TO GO: The film starts off a little choppy but ends up pulling together nicely. There is an eerie feeling here that isn’t supernatural. Son gives an exemplary performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie starts off as a political thriller but eventually morphs into a generic thriller. The flashback-heavy plot is occasionally hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead actors Son and J-h Kim both previously starred together in the 2008 comedy My Wife Got Married.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ides of March
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

ELIÁN


Elian underwater.

(2017) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures/CNN) Elián Gonzalez, Marisleysis Gonzalez, Donato Dalrymple, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Jorge Mas Santos, Carl Hiaasen, Sam Ciancio, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Manny Diaz, Gregory Craig, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, Ricardo Alarcón, Janet Reno, Joe Garcia, Spencer Eig, Alan Diaz, James Goldman, Aaron Podhurst, Carole Florman. Directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell

 

As the 2000 Presidential election campaign was ramping up in November of 1998, two Florida men out fishing in the Straits of Florida outside of Miami noticed an inner tube floating on the water. As they neared it with their boat, they saw there was a child floating in the inner tube. When the child’s hand moved weakly, Sam Ciancio dived into the water, grabbed the boy and handed him to his cousin Donato Dalrymple on the boat. They sped back to Miami, Dalrymple calling his wife urging her to call 911 and have an ambulance meet them at the dock.

The boy was Elián Gonzalez and his mother had drowned in an attempt to get from Havana to Miami. She and her boyfriend had picked up Elián in the middle of the night at the home of her ex-husband Juan Miguel Gonzalez and told Elián they were going to visit his uncles. What she really wanted for her boy was the kind of freedom she felt could not be found in their native Cuba. Her husband was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and would not think of leaving Cuba.

The Gonzalez family took Elián in with open arms. His survival was called a Thanksgiving miracle and soon was the subject of network and cable news headlines. Everyone thought that this would be the end of the story with the happy ending of the boy adjusting to a new life in the United States with his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis who clearly adored him, an affection that was clearly returned.

But it was not the end of the story, not by any means. It turns out that the boy’s father wanted him back, understandably. However, the Gonzalez clan in Miami dug in their heels. The boy’s mother clearly wished him to be raised in the Land of the Free and had died trying to make that happen; her wishes should be respected. Fidel Castro, his economy reeling after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very badly needed a symbol for his impoverished country to rally around and he found one. He began making demands of the United States that the boy be returned to Cuba, and exhorted his people to take to the streets in protest and they did, by the hundreds of thousands.

The US Government, under President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, came to the decision that the boy belonged with his father, regardless of ideology but Elián had become a cause célèbre among the exiled Cuban community in Miami, who remained vehemently anti-Castro. It soon became clear that the Miami Gonzalez family wouldn’t budge; the boy would stay with them. Castro was equally intransigent; the boy must return to Cuba.

In the middle of the night, armed INS agents broke down the door to the Gonzalez home where Elián was staying. Agents armed with automatic weapons broke into the bedroom of the boy who was being held by Dalrymple who had become a close friend of the family. The terrified child was snatched from the equally terrified Dalrymple and driven away, leading to riots in Miami. The boy was soon safely home with his father while the angry Cubans voted overwhelmingly Republican in the next election that fall, paving the way for the Presidency of George W. Bush.

The documentary which will be airing on CNN shortly after a brief limited theatrical run covers both sides of the Elián issue with fairly even hands. Most of the main players, including Marisleysis, Dalrymple, Juan Miguel and Elián himself, are interviewed. So are the peripheral players, like Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was extremely anti-Castro in those days but following the events of 1999 changed tactics and would later be instrumental in helping former President Obama begin opening relations with Cuba after the death of Castro.

There are some complexities to the incident that still remain a sore spot with Cuban-Americans today. Many view it as a triumph for master manipulator Castro who played the American government like a harp. As a Cuban-American myself, I have very mixed feelings about the events; I do believe that a 5-year-old boy should have been returned to his father from the outset; biology trumps ideology. I also understand why the Miami Gonzalez family would be reluctant to trust the Castro government who they believed – accurately as it turned out – would use the boy for political purposes. It was a shame that a compromise couldn’t be worked out but I don’t believe one was possible at the time.

Golden covered the Elián affair as a journalist so he’s fairly knowledgeable about what happened. He gives both sides pretty much equal time, although he omits certain facts like Marisleysis had intimated that the family was armed and would defend the boy with deadly force which likely was why the INS had gone in there armed to the teeth. Elián himself gets the final word, however. He is today about the same age his cousin Marisleysis was when this all happened. He is pro-Castro almost to obsessive lengths; he even goes so far as to say that if he had a religion, he would worship Fidel as God which is dogmatic to say the least. One wonders how much of that was indoctrination and how much was hero-worship of a 5-year-old boy who’d lost everything he knew and then was put through the grinder of the American media.

Even though 15 years have passed, the wounds remain fresh in the Cuban community. One gets the sense that the American government mishandled the situation – Reno was haunted by the fallout from Waco where children had died as a result of her decision to take on the Branch Davidians. One gets the sense that it will be many years before the Elián Gonzalez affair can be reviewed dispassionately and without prejudice, but it’s possible that it never will. This is a comprehensive documentary that covers the subject more than adequately but I’m not sure they are as objective as they make themselves out to be. It seemed to me that the Miami Gonzalez family came out looking better than the Cuban side, although that might be my own prejudices coming insidiously to the surface.

REASONS TO GO: A clearly emotional subject even now is covered even-handedly.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the crucial details have been left out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some of it extreme as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dalrymple was portrayed in the press as a fisherman, he was in reality a housecleaner who had gone fishing that day with his cousin Sam who was indeed a fisherman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Desert Flower
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wedding Plan

Eye in the Sky


The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

(2016) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, Bakhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Kim Engelbrecht, Ebby Weyime, Babou Ceesay, Faisa Hassan, Aisha Takow, Armaan Haggio, Carl Beukes, Bob Chappell, Daniel Fox, Jessica Jones, Michael O’Keefe, Laila Robins, Lex King. Directed by Gavin Hood

Warfare is full of shades of grey. The morality of killing other people for political or economic purposes is shaky to begin with but in modern war, killing can be done with the touch of a button and with a change from armies facing each other in remote places into terrorists in urban places, war can come to the population. Of course, in the 20th century that had already taken place but now there is no place a military strike can’t take place, or at least very few places with the advent of drones.

A multi-national task force is tracking an English radicalized terrorist (King) with ties to Al Habaab in Kenya. In an operations center in Britain, Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is coordinating with her superior, Lt. General Frank Benson (Rickman) as they observe her activities in a house in a terrorist-run part of the city. They have eyes on through the use of drones, piloted by American airman Steve Watts (Paul). On the ground in Kenya they have Jama Farah (Abdi) who is observing the house directly.

At first they think they hit paydirt when their target meets with some high-level terrorist officers, but their satisfaction turns to concern when they discover that a suicide bombing is being planned for and executed out of the house. That changes the color of the mission and frantic calls start going up the chain of command asking for and receiving an authorization to use a Hellfire missile to take out the terrorists. But things get further complicated when a little girl sets up a bread stand outside the terrorist house; the drone controller begins to have doubts and the calls up the ladder take a more urgent tone. Suddenly those who were eager to authorize the mission earlier are passing the buck, while time ticks away. Is the life of a single girl worth the dozens of lives that might be taken if the suicide bombers carry out their mission?

I don’t know that the movie really intends to answer that question; in fact, it can’t really be answered. From a strictly numbers viewpoint the answer is no – the people who might be killed by the suicide bomber are no less innocent and no less important than the life of a little girl. The question really is does knowingly ordering an airstrike that will be likely the death of a little girl more monstrous than allowing a bombing to take place when it could have been prevented. And that’s where the waters become a little bit murkier because we get into political territory then.

But that’s as may be. As a movie, Eye in the Sky does a credible job of keeping the tension high, although there are times when I thought they were being overly redundant in explaining that when you bring politicians into a military matter, things tend to get worse rather than better for while a soldier is more interested in accomplishing their particular mission, a politician is more concerned about covering their own derrieres.

And in conveying that message, Hood inserted some prestigious performers in key roles. Mirren is as gifted an actress as there is in the business, and her hawkish, shrill colonel is as stiff as a ramrod, as pitiless as a predator and as patient as a boiling teakettle. Colonel Powell is in many ways the epitome of a military mind, very centered and focused on completing the task at hand. Powell in and of herself is basically not very likable, but Mirren makes her human, a deceptively difficult job.

The late Alan Rickman, who passed away this past January and who will be much missed by this critic, never disappointed during his career and went out on a high note. In all honesty his General Benson is the epitome of a liaison, trying to balance the needs of the soldier with the needs of the politicians and having to stand on one leg while holding an umbrella over his back with a teacup balanced on the tip of his nose. Rickman gives the part some humanity as the one character who truly sees both sides of the argument.

Paul, who won three Emmys for Breaking Bad hasn’t really had a role in the movies that has utilized him as well as this one did. He is an airman with a conscience, one who doesn’t blindly follow orders but questions them when the orders appear to be morally ambiguous. In many ways, he had the most complicated role of the three main leads, but he shows that his award-winning performances were no fluke.

Is this manipulative? You bet it is. There is nothing more innocent than a little girl who is trying to help her family by selling the bread her mama baked to her neighbors going to market. That makes the moral issue a bit more focused, but it is a bit lazy – I don’t doubt that those in command of executing drone strikes find any civilian casualties wrenching, whether the victims are cute little girls or old alcoholic men. Taking the life of a non-combatant is not an easy thing for the military, as Rickman so eloquently expresses near the end of the film: “Don’t dare to presume that a military man doesn’t understand the cost of war.”

This is a movie that, if you’ll forgive an unintended pun, flew under the radar. However it is a crackerjack of a movie that should be sought out on VOD or in the near future, on home video. The performances here are scintillating and the questions raised timely and difficult. In many ways this is not only a thinking person’s war film, but a suspense film of the highest order.

Hood is not really trying to send a political message, or at least I don’t think he is. He is simply presenting the world as it is; that when killing comes down to the touch of a button, the morality of it becomes far murkier. And that’s a very powerful subject matter indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Tremendous performances by most of the leads. Grapples with the morality of modern warfare.
REASONS TO STAY: Is guilty of being manipulative. Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent images, adult themes and rough language, as well as children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rickman’s final on-screen appearance; he also lends his voice to Alice through the Looking Glass.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Kill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Embers

Secret in Their Eyes


The eyes have it.

The eyes have it.

(2015) Mystery (STX) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Dean Norris, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly, Zoe Graham, Patrick Davis, Eileen Fogarty, Lyndon Smith, Kim Yarbrough, Mark Famiglietti, Amir Malaklou, Niko Nicotera, David Israel, Dennis Keiffer, Don Harvey, Glenn Davis, Walter Tabayoyong, Michael Tennant, Ho Sung Pak, Saige Donaldson. Directed by Billy Ray

 

The line between justice and vengeance is often a fine one. There are those that say that you can have one or the other but never both; there are others that say they go hand in hand. Either way, both are exceedingly hard to attain and in the pursuit of one, often one has to settle for the other. When what attains is vengeance, we often have to kill a little piece of ourselves in order to find it.

In the aftermath of 9-11, an elite counter-terrorism task force has been established in Los Angeles by multiple law enforcement agencies. District Attorney Martin Morales (Molina) heads up the team, and among his agents are partners Ray (Ejiofor) from the FBI and Jess (Roberts) from the L.A. District Attorney’s investigative team. In their crosshairs is a downtown mosque which is said to harbor a cleric who had intentions of taking the jihadist fight to the City of Angels.

When a body is found in a dumpster next to the mosque, red flags are sent up and Ray and Jess are sent to investigate. However, the grisly discovery is of Jess’ 18-year-old daughter Carolyn (Graham), a vivacious soul who had been getting ready to go to college in the fall. The discovery devastates the team. New assistant D.A. Claire (Kidman) is assigned the case and a suspect is quickly located. However, dead end upon dead end frustrates the team and eventually Ray figures out who really did it – an informant within the mosque itself (Cole). But he is being protected by powerful forces and is set free, only to disappear.

Thirteen years later, Ray – now working as a security consultant for the New York Mets – comes to Claire – now the District Attorney – with the startling news that Ray has located the long-missing suspect. Claire and Jess (who still works for the office) are reluctant to reopen old wounds but Ray is particularly obsessed with the case and in bringing the man who killed Jess’ daughter in to pay for his crime. But even now, there are obstacles in the way of finding peace for Ray, Jess – and Claire.

This is based on the 2009 Oscar-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentine film that won Best Foreign Language Film that year. While the plots are identical, some of the details have been changed which changes the dynamics of the newer film somewhat. Also you have three Oscar-caliber actors, all of whom who have won or at least been nominated, in the main parts.

Ejiofor is the central character and as he did in 12 Years a Slave he carries the movie on his broad shoulders. The scene in which he discovers the identity of the body in the dumpster is an incredible piece of work, although it is sadly unduplicated throughout the rest of the film. No, all three of the actors in the front deliver good, solid performances with moments of excellence. Roberts in particular has a haunted look that is most unlike any of her previous performances.

The problem here is that the low-key aspect of the film drains the energy from the audience. The pacing is extraordinarily slow and there were a number of scenes that I thought could have been trimmed if not excised. Ray also jumps in time between 2002 and 2015 and often the only way to tell what time period you’re observing is by the amount of gray in Ray’s hair. I occasionally found it confusing and hard to follow.

The overall atmosphere has a bit of a noir edge to it, just as the original did albeit with a Latin flavor. Transplanting the movie to Los Angeles robs it of that and indeed gives the movie an oddly generic quality – so many thrillers have been set in L.A. that there’s a been there-done that patina. That’s kind of disturbing and not in a good way.

While the ending is cathartic if a bit preposterous, it doesn’t save the audience from feeling that this is something they’ve seen before, even if you haven’t seen the original movie this is based on. Considering the abilities of the director and the talent of the cast, this is an extremely disappointing project that on paper should have been much better than it turned out to be. While it is still entertaining and I can recommend it solely on that basis, this is a movie that is haunted by the specter of what could have been.

REASONS TO GO: All three leads are fine actors. Cathartic. Noir-esque.
REASONS TO STAY: Surprisingly lethargic. Could have used some judicious editing. Time jumping can be confusing (keep an eye on the actors’ hair for clues).
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexual content, rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All three of the leads – Ejiofor, Kidman and Roberts – are left-handed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zodiac
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Second Mother