Midnight Special


Abracadabra!

Abracadabra!

(2016) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Sharon Landry, Dana Gourrier, Sharon Garrison, Allison King, Sean Bridgers, Lucy Paust, James Moses Black, Yvonne Landry, Maureen Brennan, Ann Mahoney, Garrett Hines, Kerry Cahill. Directed by Jeff Nichols

It goes without saying that a father will do just about anything to protect his son. But what if protecting your son means the world dies? Would you trade your son’s life to save the world?

In a dingy Texas hotel room, a news broadcast tersely announces an amber alert for a young boy named Alton (Lieberher). Watching intently are Roy (Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Edgerton) – and Alton. In the dead of night, the two men grimly leave, taking their young charge with them.

A Texas ranch is raided by the FBI and the leader of the cult that lives there, Calvin Meyer (Shepard) reiterates that Alton, the boy kidnapped from their ranch, isn’t just some ordinary kid. The vision he has may be the key to Armageddon – and saving those who listen from being destroyed in the fire of the end of days.

As it turns out, Roy is Alton’s dad and he took him away from the cult, which has sent a couple of true believers to bring Alton back. Also on Roy’s tail is the NSA in the person of Sevier (Driver) who has more than a passing interest in the case – apparently the lists of numbers that Alton has been having visions about contain sensitive NSA data.

But where Roy, Lucas and Alton are headed is to see Alton’s mom Sarah (Dunst). You see, they know that what Alton’s visions are telling him is that he has to be at a certain place by a certain time. And it’s literally a matter of life and death – the death of everyone on the planet.

Jeff Nichols has only four films to his credit (a fifth, Loving, is in the can and should be out in late 2016 or early 2017) but they have all received heaps of critical praise and as you can see by the scores in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so has this one. Nichols, who also co-wrote the film, makes subtly thoughtful films, movies that on the surface look pretty straightforward but the more you think about them, the more there is to think about.

He’s also a very visual director and some of the visuals here are thrilling, from the flaming wreckage coming down from the sky like meteorites to the expansive denouement which is largely computer generated. The big graphics seem a bit out of his style, but then Nichols has largely worked indie films – this is his first studio-made film. And it’s a good one.

Shannon has appeared in three of his four films, and he is his usual intense self. I have become a big Michael Shannon film in recent years and for the life of me I can’t recall a truly unsatisfactory performance that he’s given in a long, long time. He’s as versatile as they come and here, he plays the desperate loving dad with the same force of will as he plays, say, the psychotic dirty cop, or the amoral collection agency owner. Every role he takes on he makes his own and the amazing thing about Shannon is that no two characters that he portrays ever feel alike.

A lot of this movie is spent riding around in cars. There are some car chases in it (a good one during the climactic scenes) but mostly the main characters are just trying to get from point A to point B. I don’t mind some travelling scenes but I found the movie could have used fewer of those in this case. Also, the climax includes some very striking visuals but in a sense they almost felt like they come from a different movie.

There is a bit of a Spielberg vibe here, particularly in the relationship between father and son. But in a lot of ways, Nichols is the anti-Spielberg; he’s not dealing with kids in suburban homes but in kids from rural environments. Like Spielberg, growing up is a central theme in his movies but while adults can be more white noise in his movies, the adults in Nichols’ movies are often flawed and a central part of the story.

There are a lot of good elements here; I actually like it more than the rating I’m giving it, but I think most moviegoers will find this less rewarding than I did. More discerning movie buffs however might find much more here to offer than just a road movie with science fiction overtones in a family atmosphere. It’s a lot more than the sum of its parts in that aspect.

REASONS TO GO: An intense yet subtle performance by Shannon. Thought-provoking material.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a little bit over the top. A little too much riding around in cars.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a modicum of violence and sci-fi action, as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adam Driver found out that he had been cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the first day of filming for this project.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, FandangoNow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Everybody Wants Some!!

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Zero Dark Thirty


The halo around her head presages Jessica Chastain making box office history.

The halo around her head presages Jessica Chastain making box office history.

(2012) True Life Drama (Columbia) Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini, Jonathan Olley, Jeremy Strong, Reda Kateb, John Barrowman, Chris Pratt, Frank Grillo, Scott Adkins, J.J. Kandel, Fares Fares, Mark Duplass, Tushaar Mehra, Stephen Dillane, Lauren Shaw. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Zero Dark Thirty may well be the most critically acclaimed film to come out last year and also the most controversial. The left claims that it glorifies and justifies torture, while the right claims that the filmmakers used classified material to make their film, which was also intended to help boost Obama’s electoral chances. Sony promptly defused this by scheduling it after the election.

Two years after 9-11, the CIA is no closer to finding and capturing Osama bin Laden than they were the day the Towers fell. New agent Maya (Chastain) is sent to Pakistan to work with Daniel (Clarke), one of the Agency’s top interrogators (read: torturer). In their hands is Ammar (Kateb), who helped supply money to the 9-11operatives who’d crashed the planes. Daniel water boards his prisoner and subjects him to pain and humiliation in every way imaginable.

After awhile, Maya suggests fooling him into thinking he’d already given up information that had led to Al Quaeda plans being thwarted. He gives them a name – Abu Achmed (Mehra), who is seemingly an important courier who may well have ties directly to Bin Laden. Maya seizes on this as a potential clue to his whereabouts; her station chief Joseph Bradley (Chandler) isn’t sure at all. Daniel is on the fence; he is weary of torture and wants to return home and cleanse his soul again.

Maya relentlessly chases her lead over the course of years, even after they get intelligence that Abu Achmed has been dead for years. She bonds with fellow female intelligence agent Jessica (Ehle) who looks to have a lead on a double agent who has ties to the inner circle. She goes to Camp Chapman in Afghanistan to pursue that lead…which ends in tragedy.

An attempt on Maya’s life convinces her that she’s getting close but it is no longer safe for her to stay in Pakistan so she returns to Washington to become a gadfly in the Agency as her persistence begins to pay off when information she receives leads her to find that Abu Achmed is very much alive – and living in a fortress-like complex in which someone is taking great pains to keep anyone from knowing what’s going on inside. Could this be where Bin Laden has been hiding all this time?

Well, you know what the answer to that question is unless you’ve been living under a rock. The last 25 minutes of the movie is really the payoff everyone is going to the theater to see – the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, ending up with the death of the notorious terrorist leader and the end of a decade-long nightmare. This is edge of the seat stuff, even if it is mostly seen in night vision and is often confusing and terrifying – as it must have been for the SEALs on the mission – and it at times seems like not very much is going according to plan.

I do have to say before we go into the film itself that I think that most of the complaints about the film are political posturing. This is far from an endorsement of torture for one thing – if anything, it’s an indictment against it. None of the information that they get through torture is usable – none of it. The only useful information they get is through fooling the detainee into thinking that he’d already given the information and even then it’s just a name – and not even the right one.

As for being a left-wing Obama lovefest, it’s far from that either. While I can’t speak to the filmmakers being given access to classified documents (a claim denied both by the filmmakers and the CIA, as well as with analysts familiar with the Bin Laden manhunt), I can say that they take great pains to make this as apolitical as possible. Clearly, the film is about those who undertook the greatest manhunt in history, those people in the clandestine services. No, it isn’t about suave secret agents in fast cars with nifty gadgets, although there are a few of the latter. Mostly it’s about people chasing down leads in places I wouldn’t want to spend a minute in, much less months at a time. Obama barely rates a mention or two here.

The one who rates more than a mention is Jessica Chastain. She comes into her own here and even though she’s already in a very brief time turned in some amazing performances, this tops it and puts her squarely at the top of the favorites for the Best Actress Oscar (she’s already won a Golden Globe as of this writing). She’s also made box office history, becoming the first woman ever to star in the number one and number two movies in the box office race in the same week at the same time. She joins a very elite company of men who have accomplished the same difficult feat.

Her Maya is driven, relentless as a terrier and having all the social graces of a charging bull. She is fearless, standing up to her often timid bosses who are far more afraid of being wrong than they are of not finding Bin Laden. She’s a cruise missile on a factory floor and heaven help anyone who gets in the way of her goal. Chastain is wise enough to make her vulnerabilities show up from time to time – being alone against the world can wear a person down. It’s also a very lonely place to be. Incidentally, it is reported that Maya is based on a real CIA operative, although there are those who insist that the real Maya is a man.

The movie runs about two and a half hours and that might be a little long for some, although I didn’t particularly notice the length. It does have a tendency to telegraph some of the action; when you see a date you know something tragic is about to happen.

Bigelow and her production designer Jeremy Hindle do a realistic job of setting up the look and feel of the film. Hindle built a re-creation of Bin Laden’s compound in the Jordanian desert in only a couple of months. Now, I’m not the sort who can look at the film and say “oh yes, that’s exactly the way the compound looked” but others who can do it have done so.

This is a brilliant movie that carries a little baggage with it that might affect the way you view it. I urge you not to bring small children to the movie as some idiot of a parent did to our screening; this is a movie with some pretty graphic images that the squeamish are going to have a real hard time with. For the rest of us, this is a movie that has been justifiably lauded; it’s not a perfect movie but it is certainly one that is worth your time and effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A brilliant performance by Chastain, justifiably Oscar-nominated. Realistic almost to a fault.

REASONS TO STAY: The torture scenes are very hard to take. Telegraphs some of its moves in advance.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some graphic depictions of torture that are by no means meant for children, nor are the pictures of those killed in the various bombings and raids. DO NOT BRING YOUR PRE-TEENS TO THIS MOVIE!!!!!!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was already in pre-production and was to be about the unsuccessful hunt for Osama Bin Laden when the news broke that Bin Laden was dead. Immediately the screenplay was re-written to turn the movie into the story of the successful hunt for Bin Laden.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100; this movie is as well-reviewed as it’s possible to get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurt Locker

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Hesher

Safe


Safe

Jason Statham intimidates Catherine Chan into liking his Facebook page.

(2012) Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Robert John Burke, Chris Sarandon, Catherine Chan, Anson Mount, James Hong, Sandor Tecsy, Joseph Sikora, Igor Jijikine, Reggie Lee, James Colby, Matt O’Toole, Barry Bradford, Jay Giannone. Directed by Boaz Yakin

 

Redemption isn’t easy. It usually requires sacrifice and great risk. You aren’t just handed it; it has to be earned and the greater the transgression, generally the more difficult the redemption.

Luke Wright (Statham) has had what might generously be described as a checkered past. A special forces black ops guy with a set of skills that would make Rambo look like a Disney princess, he had been recruited by the New York City Police Department after 9/11 to help ferret out further terrorist attacks on the Big Apple and eliminate the threats. Permanently.

However he gradually became aware that great corruption had set in his team, led by Captain Wolf (Burke) and Luke blew the whistle. It really didn’t accomplish much other than to get him drummed out of the Force and business as usual resumed. Luke went on to fight in underground MMA fights; however when Luke was enjoined by the Russian mob to take a dive in his fight, the incompetent opponent got himself knocked out before Luke was supposed to take his fall and as a result, the mob murdered his wife and warned him that anyone he befriended would be killed. For several years, Luke lived on the streets alone and anyone who showed him kindness or even attention usually got themselves whacked.

He’d had enough and went to the subway meaning to throw himself in front of a train and finish the job the mob started. However, before he can end it all he sees a little Asian girl being stalked on the platform by the same mobsters who murdered his wife. Unable to stand idly by, he rescues the girl and puts a whole lot of Russian thugs in the morgue.

He discovers the girl’s name is Mei (Chan) and that she’s an orphan gifted with the ability to remember really anything she is told, including really long strings of numbers. She was taken from her home in China by triad boss Han Jiao (Wong) who has set Quan Chang (Lee) to babysit her. Han had recently returned to New York City to give Mei a very long string of numbers to memorize with the instructions that she would soon meet someone who would give her a second very long string of numbers to memorize.

It turns out that one set opens a safe holding $35 million. The other opens a safe that holds a disc containing information of all the Triad’s operations in New York. The Russians will give the contents of one for the contents of the other. The cops want all of it. Everyone’s gunning for this kid and Luke has put himself square in the middle of it.

The results are pretty much carnage; gunfights, martial arts beatdowns, car chases and lots of screaming in Russian, Mandarin and English (well, with a thick New York accent anyway). It’s all good, particularly if you love to see things blow up, things get shot and Jason Statham glowering.

Director Yakin isn’t noted for his action chops but he does a pretty good job here. Action movies need to be kinetic in every sense; the plot has to move along with the action and all things considered, this has a pretty good one. It isn’t anything you haven’t already seen before on either side of the equation – there are no stunts here that take your breath away nor is the plot or story much more than several action classics cobbled together.

Most of those action classics are from the ’70s when the movies tended to be anti-government. Safe harkens back to a day when The Man was literally out to get you and had his goon squads coming down on the innocent, laughing maniacally as they machine gunned innocent civilians. This is little different and only misses big afros, eight track tapes and headbands from those pictures. And maybe Curtis Mayfield on the soundtrack.

Still, Statham is as good at asskicking as any of the 70s heroes (Billy Jack, Shaft, Superfly and so on) and has the Clint Eastwood growl down to boot. The technical end is better as well – this is a pretty good looking film, with plenty of neon, glass breaking and blood spray. Action fans will get their money’s worth and for those who aren’t into action movies? Well, this is as good an introduction to the genre as any but if those sorts of movies aren’t your cup of tea, there isn’t enough else here to really make this worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Jason Statham kicks ass (as usual). A nice throwback to 70s urban paranoia action flicks.

REASONS TO STAY: Nothing here that you haven’t seen before.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, particularly of the gunshot variety and a fair amount of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in a three-film distribution deal between Lionsgate and IM Global, an international productions company that specializes in action films. Dredd and Protection being the other two films in the deal.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. It’s safe to say the reviews have been pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Witness

CAR CHASE LOVERS: There are three distinct car chase scenes during the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Act of Valor


Act of Valor

An unusual sighting of the rare Flying Seal.

(2012) Action (Relativity) Active Duty U.S. Navy Seals, Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano, Alex Veadov, Jason Cottle, Artie Malesci, Marc Margulies, Dimeter Marinov, Ailsa Marshall, Gonzalo Menendez, Emilio Rivera, Dan Southworth. Directed by Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh

 

We owe so much to our men and women in uniform. Say what you will about the reasons we send them out to risk their lives for us, they still serve with the knowledge that they may be called upon to die for their country and yet they still do it. There’s no doubt that our military personnel should be given the highest respect and honors by all of us and for the most part, most of us feel that way about them.

We can be proud that our service people are some of the most highly trained badasses on the face of the Earth. From the Army Rangers to the Air Force fighter pilots to the entire God Damn U.S. Marine Corps, these are guys (and gals) you should be VERY thankful are on our side.

Some of the badassest guys and gals in our military are the Navy SEALs. These are the same guys who got Bin Laden and rescued the Captain of that merchant vessel from Somali pirates. When they are given a mission, they execute it – and sometimes the cost is tragically high.

A group of SEALs led by Chief Dave and Lt. Cmmdr. Rorke (both first names only – which apparently is also the names of the real-life SEALs that portray them) have been given the task of rescuing a female CIA agent (Sanchez) who has been kidnapped by a Ukrainian arms dealer who supplies to the Chechnyans (Veadov). She is being tortured in some central American hell hole but the SEALs come in and against a well-armed numerically superior force pick up the woman (who has been brutally tortured) and take her to safety.

Except their work isn’t done quite yet. It turns out that the arms dealer has a link to a jihadist (Cottle) who is smuggling in suicide bombers using high-tech vests with porcelain ball bearings that can take out an entire city block, which in those numbers would bring our economy to its knees. The SEALs must find the jihadist and stop him before his plan comes to fruition.

Doubtlessly you have heard by now that the SEALs in the movie are played by real life SEALs who are on active military duty. It sounds a bit gimmicky – and it is. It also plays a lot like a recruitment video, which isn’t surprising since it supposedly started out life as one but became more of a traditional movie in which SEAL tactics and personnel were used to illustrate just what they do.

I don’t have any objection to that. I don’t mind learning what life is like from the perspective of someone like the men here, who actually put their lives on the line on a regular basis. I don’t mind being educated, but I do object to propaganda…which this, thankfully, isn’t (although some critics seem to think it is). This isn’t some Fox News rant about how great the military is and how the liberals of our nation are killing our freedoms yadda yadda yadda; this is meant to realistically portray conditions in the field and the kind of things our fighting men and women have to go through.

Is it Hollywoodized? Sure, at least just a bit. The dialogue is heavy on the pound-your-chest macho aphorisms. The situations resolve themselves far more neatly than they do in real life – or even in the field. I may be no military man but I’ve enough common sense to realize that few missions this complicated end up as cut and dried as this one does – there are always curveballs and snafus. In fact lest we forget, the term “snafu” itself is military in origin.

The directors, who go by the name of the Bandido Brothers, prove to be very capable directors of action sequences. They boast that live ammo was used in many of the sequences and while that does add to the realism quotient, it makes me uncomfortable. No matter how many precautions you can take, you don’t mess with live ammo. Nobody’s life is worth shooting a movie for.

I wound up liking the movie and Da Queen had a good catharsis of her own by the movie’s end (she comes from a military family so it hit home with her a bit deeper than it did with me). In fact, those who do have any sort of military connection will find something that resonates here, from the goodbyes to loved ones being deployed into harm’s way to the hasty phone calls from God-knows-where that only make you miss them more.

I wound up appreciating the movie and admiring it from a technical standpoint, but still I couldn’t get over the feeling that it was a bit gimmicky with the literal stunt casting. For my money, I’d rather have these men out in the field doing what they do best or better still, home with their families  rather than in front of the cameras. Still, the movie was much more entertaining than I anticipated so it’s definitely worth a look-see.

REASONS TO GO: Great kinetic action sequences.  

REASONS TO STAY: More recruitment film than film. SEALs are not necessarily good actors and the sometimes stiff jingoistic dialogue doesn’t help them much. A little gimmicky in the end.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly graphic torture sequences as well as military violence. There are also some bad words here and there but probably nothing compared to the language SEALS use during actual operations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially the plan was for the SEALs to be portrayed by actors but when several SEALs who were asked to consult for accuracy complained that the SEALs in the film weren’t being portrayed accurately, it was decided to have actual active duty military in the cast portraying those roles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews are poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Top Gun

MILITARY LOVERS: The equipment used here is all currently in use by the U.S. Military, giving those who are into military things a reason to drool.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Vampires