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

Mine (2016)


Armie Hammer considers his options.

(2016) War (Well Go USA) Armie Hammer, Annabelle Wallis, Tom Cullen, Clint Dyer, Geoff Bell, Juliet Aubrey, Inés Piñar Mille, Luka Peros, Daniel Sandoval, Agustin Rodriguez, Yesarela Arzumendi, Manuel Medero, David Kirk Taylor (voice), Edoardo Purgatori (voice). Directed by Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro

 

Our adventures in the Middle East have put the United States in a Gordian knot of a predicament. We cannot withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan without creating chaos and yet if we stay we seem to become more tightly ensnared. We cannot stay put and yet we cannot step away.

Mike (Hammer) is a U.S. Marine sniper on a mission to take out a high-ranking terrorist. Intel has put him in a remote part of the desert far from anywhere, accompanied by his spotter Tommy (Cullen). Mike has the suspect in his sights but it turns out that he is there not to plan mayhem with his fellow terrorists but to see his son married. Mike hesitates and inadvertently gives away their position. The mission is officially FUBAR.

He and Tommy are forced to flee across the unforgiving desert. Sand storms have grounded the helicopters that would normally pick them up so they’re going to have to hoof it to a village six kilometers across the desert. With limited supplies, it will not be an easy journey but given their military training they should be able to make it. That is, until they walk dead into a minefield.

Mike ends up stepping on a mine but is able to stop himself from lifting his foot and detonating it. Tommy isn’t so lucky. He blows himself in half and leaves Mike to fend for himself. Using a little bit of improvising, he is able to contact his handlers and tell them of his predicament; they still can’t get their helicopters off the ground and with their assets deployed elsewhere it will be 52 long hours before someone can get to a lone Marine standing on a land mine.

As Mike is baked in the desert sun and runs out of water, he meets a friendly Berber (Dyer) who urges him to take a chance, step off the mine and free himself but Mike can’t do it. He begins to hallucinate and flashes back to a beautiful girlfriend (Wallis) he can’t quite commit to (but definitely should), an abusive alcoholic father (Bell) who called Mike’s spine into question and a mother (Aubrey) whose recent bout with cancer has left Mike shaken to the core and running away rather than facing what has befallen him at home.

With thirst, wild dogs, vengeful terrorists and sand storms besetting him, it is a test of Mike’s will in order to survive. Can he survive with one foot planted on the mine or will he take a leap of faith and free himself from his situation?

The movie is very much a metaphor for the American involvement in the Middle East, but that’s not really what drew me to this film. It isn’t easy to make a movie about a man locked in place in the middle of nowhere interesting and engaging and I wasn’t sure if the Italian duo known as Fabio and Fabio could pull it off but pull it off they did.

Much of the reason they did is that Hammer delivers a performance that improves and grows as the movie goes on. Initially he’s a ramrod-straight Marine with not just a stick up his butt but a dang Redwood up there, but as he starts to face his past so close to death, he becomes much more relatable. Hammer is extremely likable as an actor but the Lone Ranger debacle effectively derailed his career for big budget franchise films. This is the kind of movie that can put him back in the running for those sorts of roles.

There are some lapses in logic here; for one thing, a Marine sniper team never sets out into the desert all by their lonesome. There is going to be a support crew and a backup plan in case the sniper can’t get a shot at his target – and anyway a drone strike would have been far more effective in that situation. Also, standing with your weight on one foot for more than two days would have physiological effects on his muscles; there should have been some sort of reference to that in the movie. Even a Marine can’t prevent his body from doing what it is meant to do. Finally, a sand storm the size and magnitude of what was depicted in the film is not going to just leave a few cupfuls of sand on someone caught in it; it’s going to just about bury him and likely either suffocate him or at the very least blow him off of the land mine. The winds in one of those things are not that far from hurricane force.

All those unwelcome plot points aside, the movie still worked for me although I can understand why there was some eye-rolling in critical circles. I found that Hammer’s performance made up for the writing deficiencies and while the broken home-abusive father-commitment phobia subplots were a bit clichéd Hammer gave his character enough depth and dignity to put some real bite into those old tropes. I might have wished that Wallis had been given more than a generic “awesome girlfriend” character to work with – I would have liked to see what made Mike fall in love with her in the first place – and I might have wished that the Berber hadn’t been so much the “Magic Negro” trope of the sort that made The Legend of Bagger Vance so annoying. But as far as gripping premises go, I certainly got more than I wished.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing concept that is pulled off nicely. Hammer gives a performance that gets stronger as the movie goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses points for logical lapses and plot holes.. .
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity as well as some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in the Middle East, the movie was filmed in the Canary Island substituting for the desert. The sandstorms were added digitally.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buried
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Get Out

Seabiscuit


Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

(2003) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, William H. Macy, Michael Angarano, Ed Lauter, Gianni Russo, Sam Bottoms, Dyllan Christopher, Gary Stevens, Royce D. Applegate, Valerie Mahaffey, Michael O’Neill, Annie Corley, David McCullough (voice), Michelle Arthur. Directed by Gary Ross

There are true stories and then there is the truth. Hollywood has a habit of obscuring one for the other. I say this because upon first glance at this movie, one is going to believe that some of the men who are front and center in Seabiscuit were saints, or at least close to it. Be aware as you watch this, that it is more or less an idealized version of the true story that surrounded one of the most legendary racehorses of our time and don’t let that fact get in the way of a truly wonderful movie.

The Great Depression hit some men harder than others. For automobile dealer Charles Howard (Bridges), a car accident that took the life of his 15-year-old son was a forceful reminder that the sunny days of the ’20s were over. Although Howard was able to retain much of his fortune, he found himself searching to fill the empty void in his life, one that cost him his first wife (Mahaffey) although he would later find the spirited Marcela (Banks) while on a trip to Mexico.

For Tom Smith (Cooper), the end of a lifestyle that he loved and an era in American history came hand-in-hand. One of the last of the true range-riding cowboys, Smith found himself in an increasingly mechanized age where the once endless prairies had vanished into subdivisions, towns and fenced-off ranches. A man who had forgotten more about horses than most of the rest of the country combined actually knew, he found it difficult to find a good job utilizing the skills and knowledge he had accumulated over years in the saddle. Adjusting to the 20th century was proving difficult to a man who was born 50 years too late.

Red Pollard (McGuire) had gone through life fighting his way uphill for everything he had, literally. Forced into a foster home after financial difficulties had beset his family, he had a massive chip on his shoulder for most of the rest of his life. He had tried his hand at prizefighting, but wound up beaten, bloody and more often than not, alone. An excellent rider, he was considered to be too big to be a jockey and there were otherwise precious few jobs that involved riding horses.

These three men were united by an unlikely horse named Seabiscuit. Small, ungraceful and none too fast, Seabiscuit’s career on the racetrack had been less than spectacular. But then Howard bought the horse and hired Smith to train him, and Pollard to ride him. And it is this particular confluence of people, time and events that would create magic – and sports history.

At first, Seabiscuit was met with a certain amount of apathy. But as he began to win, the canny publicity hound Howard began to market his horse like no other sports figure in the country (except for maybe Babe Ruth). The right sort of people began to get behind the underdog horse, such as radio reporter Tick Tock McLaughlin (Macy). And Seabiscuit continued to win and win and win.

Off in the distance, coming from the east, War Admiral — thought of as the Perfect Racehorse — had won racing’s coveted Triple Crown. The snobbish Eastern bankers who own War Admiral think at first the undersized horse from the West Coast is beneath their notice. Howard pushes in the press for a match race, leading to an epic confrontation that pitted the two greatest horses of all time, who happened to be at their peaks simultaneously.

Of course, Seabiscuit plays with the heartstrings – unashamedly and sometimes unnecessarily. The story of the great horse is great movie material; it had been done before – in an godawful 1949 tearjerker The Story of Seabiscuit starring Shirley Temple – but the horse with a heart bigger than a nation’s pain deserved a much better biography and this is it. Bridges, Cooper and McGuire all handle their roles respectfully, trying not to succumb to the over-sentimentality of the script, and bringing the essence of the characters to life. They have a good chemistry together which is immensely important given that this is as much their story as Seabiscuit’s.

Director Gary Ross wisely lets the visuals speak for themselves; the racing scenes are well-executed. Although the story is Hollywoodized somewhat, the facts are actually stuck fairly closely to, which is to be commended. They also do a great job of recreating the gait and style of the legendary Seabiscuit.

The movie is inspiring, if occasionally treacly. The story itself lends itself to a big stage, and Ross provides it for his fine cast. Getting past the sentiment can be tricky, but this is a story about perhaps the ultimate underdog and the movie has in ten short years become a sports movie classic.

WHY RENT THIS: Great underdog story. Excellent chemistry among the leads. Inspiring. Terrific racing sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Prone to over-sentimentality.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of sexuality and there is some violence within the context of the sport.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Sold 5.5 million DVD copies which at the time was a record for a drama.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on horse racing in the 1930s which includes not only the Seabiscuit-War Admiral rivalry but also other great horses of the era. The Blu-Ray includes newsreel footage of the actual race and an A&E channel special on the real Seabiscuit.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $148.3M on an $87M production budget; the film fell shy of recouping it’s production costs during its theatrical run although it turned a very tidy profit on home video.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Now You See Me

 

Radio


Cuba Gooding Jr. turns it on.

Cuba Gooding Jr. turns it on.

(2003) Biographical Drama (Revolution) Cuba Gooding Jr., Ed Harris, Debra Winger, Alfre Woodard, S. Epatha Merkerson, Riley Smith, Brent Sexton, Sarah Drew, Chris Mulkey, Patrick Breen, Bill Roberson, Kenneth H. Callender, Michael Harding, Charles Garren, Leslea Fisher. Directed by Michael Tollin

A good cry can be as exhilarating as a good laugh. Any movie that can move viewers to tears, then leave them marveling at the triumph of the human spirit, is the aces.

Harold Jones (Harris) is a successful high school football coach in Anderson, South Carolina. As he enters the 1976 season, his mostly untested young team has a lot of question marks, especially when it comes to character. When the star running back (Smith) and some of his cohorts lock a young man (Gooding) of diminished mental capabilities in a shed after tying him up and terrorizing him, Coach Jones and his assistant, Honeycutt (Sexton) step in and punish the boys.

Gradually, the taciturn Coach befriends the young man, who at first is unresponsive, unable even to tell the coach his name. Because of the quiet man’s attachment to transistor radios, Coach Jones dubs his new friend Radio (his real name turns out to be James Robert Kennedy) and begins an amazing, unusual relationship. Jones takes Radio under his wing, despite the suspicions of his mother (Merkerson) and the misgivings of the school’s principal (Woodard).

Radio blossoms, finally having people in his life who accept him instead of humiliate him. He goes from barely able to mutter more than a word or two at a time to an enthusiastic, talkative person, a regular at athletic practices and at the school itself, where he becomes an unofficial hall monitor and broadcaster. Gradually, he becomes an important part of the community.

But all is not perfect. The football team is not performing to expectations, and some believe that the distractions that Radio brings are to blame, particularly the town’s banker (Mulkey) whose son is the star running back who caused the initial trouble with Radio. His son plays an even crueler joke on Radio which causes the school board in the person of Tucker (Breen) to cast a suspicious eye on the situation. Radio overcomes the adversity, but nobody is prepared for the greatest obstacle of all.

The cast is outstanding, particularly Gooding. At times his expression is so truly vacant it seems that nobody really is home. And he skillfully makes the transition to an open personality, capturing the effusive personality of the real Radio to a “T”. After capturing an Oscar in Jerry Maguire, Gooding had undermined himself with a series of terrible choices (Snow Dogs, Boat Trip et al.), but Radio puts him back on the right track, at least temporarily – he still continues to be plagued with movies that are unworthy of his talents..

Harris is one of the most distinguished actors of our time. He is rarely seen in a role that he doesn’t elevate and I can’t remember him ever giving a bad performance. Here, he is low-key, a Southern gentleman desperately wanting to do the right thing, but reluctant to explain why his relationship with Radio is so important to him. It puts a strain on his relationship with his wife (Winger) and daughter (Drew), but Harris underlies the flawed goodness within the man that makes him believable and real.

Enough can’t be said about Winger. She make movies very infrequently, and that’s a shame. She has a tremendous presence, and here shows particular restraint in a thankless role that isn’t developed terribly well (she is seen reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique early on, but her character is hardly a feminist here), but Winger carries it off well. I hope she can find the time to return to the big screen more regularly but it really hasn’t happened up to now.

Director Michael Tollin captures the importance of high school football in a small Southern town, and sums it up neatly in a speech Harris gives hear the end of the film: “There’s nothing better than looking for a win on a Friday night, and waking up on Saturday morning after you found one.” He wisely concentrates on the relationship between Jones and Radio, how it develops and why. He cast Gooding and Harris well; the two work well off each other, and in one of the most gripping scenes of the movie — when a distraught Radio is kneeling in the center of his room, inconsolable, the taciturn football coach, never a demonstrative man, opens up and comforts him. The charm of Radio is that he treats everyone he meets with joy and love, as Coach Jones explains, “He treats all of us the way we wish we could treat half of us.”

Be warned; this is the kind of movie that doesn’t just elicit a sniffle; it’s a full-on, tears-streaming-down-the-face weepy that leaves viewers feeling awesome when the lights come back up. The real Radio continues to be a presence at T.L. Hanna High, where he can be found regularly during the football season leading the Yellow Jackets onto the field and joining the cheerleaders when the spirit moves him. He’s as important to Anderson as the air they breathe, and one can only feel good that the rest of us get to share him. Feel-good movies aren’t always my cup of tea, but as manipulative as this one sometimes get, it certainly worked its magic on this cynic. Don’t forget your hankies.

WHY RENT THIS: Utterly cathartic. Terrific performances from Gooding, Harris and Winger. Captures the mentality of a Southern high school football town.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a bit too tear-inducing if there is such a thing.  Sometimes a bit formulaic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are a few bad words scattered here and there. Some of the thematic elements might be a bit too much for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie was primarily filmed in neighboring Walterboro because the town looked more like the era depicted here. The real Radio and Coach Jones are seen at the end of the movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The making-of featurette contains input from some of the real people depicted in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53.3M on a $35M production budget; the movie just about broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Molly

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Happy Feet Two

Hotel Rwanda


Hotel Rwanda

Even all these nuns couldn't pray Don Cheadle into the Oscar he well-deserved.

(2004) True Life Drama (United Artists) Don Cheadle, Nick Nolte, Sophie Okonedo, Desmond Dube, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Joaquin Phoenix, Antonio David Lyons, David O’Hara, Lebo Mashile, Jean Reno, Cara Seymour, Thulani Nyembe. Directed by Terry George

 

The thing about human beings, is that even when you hit us in the face with a two by four, we still don’t get it. Many of us read the history books about the Holocaust and the Nazi Final Solution, Hitler’s attempt to exterminate Jews, Gypsies and millions of other people he didn’t like. We read about how many people turned a blind eye to the horrors of the 1930s and ’40s and we comfort ourselves by saying, “I’d never do that.”

And yet we do. The same thing happened in Rwanda in 1994, and nobody seemed to notice. It’s happening now, in Darfur, but few speak up. The consequences of silence can be terrible. Ask the Tutsis of Rwanda, if you can find any. There are significantly fewer of them now.

Paul Ruesesabagina (Cheadle) lived in Rwanda in 1994. He was the assistant manager of the swank Hotel Des Milles Colline, and a good one. Calm, efficient and competent, he used bribery, flattery and an impeccable sense of style to please his guests and grease the wheels of a corrupt system in the former Belgian colony that is now Rwanda. He lived a life of quiet comfort with his family.

But there are storm clouds on the horizon. The Belgians, while they occupied their former colony, had arbitrarily divided the people into two “tribes” — the lighter skinned, smaller-nosed were dubbed Tutsis and were given the authority to help them run the country. Inexplicably, when the Belgians left, they gave power to the Hutus. Animosities over years of oppression boiled over into a genocidal hatred, whipped up by a radio announcer/importer named George Rutuganda (Kae-Kazim).

Paul, a Hutu, is unconcerned at first. When his brother-in-law comes to warn him of impending disaster, he dismisses the warnings as hysteria. Then it begins, suddenly, brutally, given the excuse of the murder of the Rwandan president, ostensibly by Tutsi rebels, with whom a peace treaty has just been signed under the good auspices of the UN and the commander of their peacekeeping forces, Colonel Oliver (Nolte).

Now, Paul is faced with friends, neighbors and employees who are at risk because they are Tutsis. Paul’s wife Tatiana (Okonedo, previously seen in Dirty Pretty Things) is also Tutsi, as are his children. His safe world crumples amidst anarchy, chaos and brutal violence. Men, women and children are slaughtered by machetes, hacked to pieces by the hundreds. Paul and his family barely escape the carnage and make it to the hotel, where white European guests are panicking, trying to get out of a country gone berserk. Refugees, orphans left by a Red Cross worker (Seymour) begin to pour into the hotel. Paul, realizing that turning them away would be tantamount to a death sentence, takes them in, confident that he can wait out the storm until the west sends help.

But help is not forthcoming. The Americans, stung by their experiences in Somalia, don’t wish to walk into another hornet’s nest. The rest of the European nations follow suit. As the foreign nationals are all evacuated, Paul realizes that they must save themselves. And in order to do that, he must maintain the illusion that the Hotel des Milles Collines is still a five-star resort, a place of style where even the generals and butchers who preside at massacres can go to feel civilized.

Hotel Rwanda is harrowing. There are many irrational men with guns committing acts of unspeakable horror, and Cheadle, as Paul, is our eyes and ears. There is a scene where he is driving down the River Road in the early morning fog on the advice of the monstrous Rutuganda, when the car begins to hit a very rough road. Paul, fearing they have gone off the road, orders the driver to stop. He gets out of the car to see if they are still on the pavement and is met with the sight of hundreds of bodies lying in the road as far as the eye can see, children whose faces are grimaces of terror and pain. After returning to the hotel, he goes to change his shirt, which has been stained with the blood of the corpses on the road in the employee locker room. Attempting to tie his tie, he at last gives in to the overwhelming emotions of what he has witnessed and breaks down. It is a powerful, powerful scene, performed by a brilliant actor.

Don Cheadle earned an Oscar nomination for his performance here, and there are a lot of compelling reasons why he should have won, instead of Jamie Foxx. Rather than making Paul a perfect hero, he humanizes him and becomes the audience’s surrogate. Like all of us, sometimes he just doesn’t know enough to get out of the rain, even when the thunder is booming in his ears. He is in nearly every scene and carries the movie. Cheadle characterizes Paul as a kind of African Oskar Schindler, which in truth, he was. Okonedo is also magnificent, for which she was duly recognized with a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

There is no denying the power of this film. You are immediately sucked into the situation, and affected by it. You may wonder, as I did, “Why the hell didn’t I know this was going on? Why didn’t my country do anything about it?” As an embittered reporter, played in a cameo by Phoenix says, “I think if people see this footage, they’ll say ‘Oh, my God, that’s horrible.’ And then they’ll go on eating their dinners.”

While I found Kinyarwanda to be a much more authentic and moving film (also about the Rwandan genocide, but more about how that country is moving towards reconciliation), this is certainly the most acclaimed film of the two and thus the easiest to locate for viewing/streaming/renting. Hotel Rwanda also boasts the performances of Cheadle and Okonedo, which are both outstanding and worth the rental fee alone.

This should be required viewing for every American and every European. We should see this powerful movie, not to feel bad about ourselves, but for us to look at the images of genocide and say “Not again. Not in my lifetime.” And, above all, to take action, to demand our leaders take action. We may feel safe and secure in our world. I’m sure the real Paul Ruesesabagina did. So did many German Jews in 1936. The storm clouds can gather anywhere – at any time.

WHY RENT THIS: Intense Oscar-nominated performances by Cheadle and Okonedo. A story that up until this movie was little seen or remembered in the West. Powerful and horrifying.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is a bit Hollywoodized.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, some foul language and some extremely disturbing images. While it got a PG-13 rating on appeal, do consider very carefully the sensitivity of those viewing it before renting it for your family, although it is certainly something teens should see.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a featurette on the real Paul Ruesesabagina returning to Rwanda almost a decade after the genocide, and to specific locations depicted in the film (including the hotel and the site of the school massacre).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.9M on an unreported prodution budget; I’d be willing to guess that the movie broke even or made a little bit of money.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax

Barney’s Version


Barney's Version

Hey did you hear this one? A man walks into a bar and...oh never mind.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver, Bruce Greenwood, Rachelle Lefevre, Saul Rubinek, Mark Addy, Macha Grenon, Paul Gross, Anna Hopkins, Jake Hoffman, Thomas Trabacchi, Cle Bennett. Directed by Richard J. Lewis

All of us live two different lives; the lives that everyone sees, and the ones we actually live. It is when you see our own version of our lives that you begin to see us as we truly are.

Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) is a television producer for a horrible soap opera called “O’Malley of the North.” He smokes Montecristo cigars, drinks far too much and is crude and curmudgeonly to one and all. He has good reason to be; he is divorced and his ex-wife married a putz; to make matters worse, a retired police detective (Addy) has recently published a book that essentially accuses him of murder. That can ruin your entire day.

Barney wasn’t always like this. Once he lived a Bohemian existence in Rome with fellow artistic types like Leo (Trabacchi) – a gifted painter, and Boogie (Speedman) a gifted writer and even more gifted junkie, and then there’s Cedric (Bennett) who’s gifted at….well God knows what. Barney is getting ready to marry Clara (Lefevre), a gifted painter and poet who is, well, more Bohemian than most if you get my drift. Most everyone thinks this is a terrible mistake, with Boogie hissing “She’s a conversation piece, not a wife” but Barney got her pregnant, so he’s willing to man up and do the right thing. 

Except when the baby is stillborn and turns out to be as black as, well, Cedric, it puts an awful crimp in their relationship. When Barney blows off a reconciliation dinner with Clara (mainly because Boogie, in a stupor as usual, forgot to give Barney the invitation), the consequences are severe.

Barney returns home to Montreal where he is set up with and eventually marries the daughter (Driver) of a sour but wealthy man who disapproves of basically everything Barney is. Barney’s dad, Iz (Hoffman) is a lively Montreal detective who cheerfully admits his career didn’t advance because of his Jewishness. It doesn’t seem to bother him that much; he’s just glad to be there for his son, who is certainly a chip off the old block.

At his wedding reception, Barney meets Miriam Grant (Pike), a beautiful and erudite New Yorker who works in the radio business. Barney is immediately head-over-heels smitten with her, going so far as to follow her to the railway station, offering to take her on his honeymoon with him. She naturally declines but Barney continues to woo her in the intervening years. 

Meanwhile, Boogie’s addictions are getting worse, much to the dismay of Barney’s nameless wife because Barney takes it upon himself to care for his addled friend. One day he returns to their country lakeside property to find Boogie schtupping his wife. While Barney feigns indignity, he is actually delighted. Now he has the ammunition he needs to get the divorce he wants, leaving him free to pursue Miriam which, as it turns out, won’t take much. 

However, the problem is that Boogie has disappeared after a loud and violent argument with Barney and the now former Mrs. Panofsky said in her statement that he had threatened to kill Boogie, leading a particularly brutish detective to beat the crap out of Barney until Iz intervenes. Still, things are looking up for Barney despite the cloud of the investigation that hasn’t even yielded up a body much less a crime.  

Soon Barney and Miriam are together as it was meant to be. They make a family with daughter Kate (Hopkins) and son Michael (Jake Hoffman). A neighbor on the lake where their country house is located, Blair (Greenwood) even has radio connections and is able to get Miriam some work. However, when things are at their best is often when things are about to come crashing down about your ears. 

This Canadian production, based on the last and arguably the best novel of distinguished Jewish-Canadian author Mordecai Richler (he of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz fame) has already been distinguished in that Giamatti won the Golden Globe earlier this year for Best Actor in a Comedy (which by the way is not really an accurate classification for this movie). Unfortunately, Giamatti didn’t get an Oscar nomination, largely because the field was so strong this year but he could easily have done. His portray of Barney Panofsky is unforgettable and might even be a better performance than the one he gave in Sideways.

He has a strong backing cast. Dustin Hoffman is still as elfin and charming as he’s ever been and Iz Panofsky goes right up there in his pantheon of memorable characters, which is saying a lot. He is absolutely incandescent whenever he gets onscreen. Likewise is Rosamund Pike, a wonderful British actress who is just now beginning to get noticed over on this side of the Atlantic. As with Giamatti, this is her very best performance to date. As the long-suffering Miriam she puts up with her boorish husband and perhaps comes closest to understanding him of anyone until he makes the one transgression that she cannot forgive.  

While there are comedic elements, this is most certainly not a comedy. It’s very painful to watch in places and I spent the last 20 minutes in tears as I watched things fall apart. Sometimes the things we want most in life are the things we can’t have – not because they are unobtainable, but because we don’t have the wisdom and maturity to recognize how to keep them. It is true that the ending of Barney’s Version is very sad, but the movie is not about that; rather, it’s about the journey and taken as a whole, this isn’t a tragedy, not really.

REASONS TO GO: Giamatti, Hoffman and Pike all deliver standout performances. This critic was moved to tears by basically the last 20 minutes of the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense and hit too close to home for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language; a goodly amount of it in fact, and some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Izzy Panofsky and his grandson Michael are played by, respectively, Dustin and Jake Hoffman who are father and son in real life.

HOME OR THEATER: This is playing in limited release and is worth seeking out on the big screen; however chances are you have a better shot at seeing it on home video, streaming or on-demand.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Tuck Everlasting

The Signal


The Signal

End transmission.

(2007) Horror (Magnet) Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Ngaujah, AJ Bowen, Matt Stanton, Suehyla El-Attar, Justin Welborn, Cheri Christian, Scott Poythress, Christopher Thomas, Lindsey Garrett, Chadrian McKnight. Directed by David Brucker, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush

When the end of the world comes, how would you spend it? Would you want to be with the one you love to face the inevitable or would you fight for survival?

The end of the world has come to Terminus, although the people there don’t know it. Mya Denton (Ramsey) is having an affair with Ben (Welborn) who begs her to come with her to the bus station and leave her abusive husband Lewis (Bowen) behind. Mya can’t quite bring herself to do it and she goes home to her husband, who is having an argument with two friends as they watch the ball game. Suddenly, Lewis grabs a baseball bat and begins beating one of his friends to death with it. Batter up.

This section, titled “Transmission I: Crazy Love” was directed by Brucker. Up next is “Transmission II: The Jealousy Monster” directed by Gentry. Mya and Lewis’ friend Rod (Ngaujah) try to get away but Rod has been infected by the signal and causes their car to crash. Nice guy Clark (Poythress) tries to make sure Mya’s okay but she doesn’t trust anyone so she warns him off and makes for the bus station on foot. Meanwhile Clark’s neighbor Anna (Christian), who is throwing a New Year’s Eve party, is distressed over having had to murder her husband who was trying to strangle her. This has driven her over the edge and she thinks that Clark is her husband. Lewis arrives, completely enraged and hallucinating badly, believes that Anna is Mya. Jim Parsons (McKnight), an invited guest, arrives and believes he wants to get laid. Lewis kills everybody just to make things less confusing.

The final section is “Transmission III: Escape from Terminus” and is directed by Bush (by a process of elimination). In this portion, Ben escapes to try and find Mya and Lewis heads over to try and find her first, as the city crumbles into chaos. What state will she be in when they find her?

Each of the three sections is done in a different style; the first is a kind of indie drama, while the second is black comedy; the third is action packed. It can get a little bit jarring moving from section to section, but mostly, the actors all remain the same.

While these are essentially unknowns, the acting is pretty decent enough – I’ve seen worse with bigger budgets. The effects are essentially bargain basement as you might guess, but there are so few of them that mostly it’s about fake blood and make-up wounds which are relatively inexpensive compared to CGI. Everything else is just a matter of planning and luck.

Most indie horror movies have a tendency to either be too cerebral to be truly terrifying, or too gory to be terrifying (one gets numbed to gore pretty quickly). The Signal finds the right balance and ends up being terrifying. While the concept of signals sent over the airwaves to cause mass psychosis is nothing new, this is one of the best versions I’ve seen. It’s equally irreverent as it is relevant to our use of technology and the dangers of being too reliant on it. If you’re looking for a scare flick you haven’t seen yet to while away a Friday night, this one might be for you.

WHY RENT THIS: As indie horror films go, this is a gem. Less claustrophobic than Pontypool and certainly a little wackier.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Three separate directors directing separately make for some interesting style differentials, but this can also be unnecessarily distracting.

FAMILY VALUES: A lot of bloody, gory violence and a good deal of filthy language. There’s some brief nudity and sexual innuendo as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional city in the film is called Terminus, which was the original name of the city of Atlanta, Georgia where the movie was actually filmed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several online viral videos that marketed the movie before its limited release, including the bloody results at a television station when the signal first arrives as well as a cheerful family picnic amidst the carnage and mayhem of the apocalypse. Two minutes of the short The Hap Hapgood Story were aired during the film; the entire ten-minute short is thoughtfully provided here. Finally, you can see the signal itself, eight hours and 24 minutes worth, if you really want to.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $371,568 on an unreported production budget; while there’s a chance the project made money, it probably didn’t.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Celestine Prophecy