Ask Dr. Ruth


Dr. Ruth peers out of a train window at her oncoming past.

(2019) Documentary (Magnolia/HuluDr. Ruth Westheimer, Pierre Lohu, Joel Westheimer, Cliff Rubin, John Lollos, Lee Salk, Greg Willenburg, Walter Nothmann, Debbie Nothmann, Leora Einleger, Jonathan Capehart, Dallah “Marga” Miller, Shmil Boruchovitz, Betty Elam Brauner, Mina Westheimer, Maurice Tunick, Michael Leckie, Avi Einleger, Jeffrey Tabak, Susan Brown. Directed by Ryan White

 

For most of us, our first sexual experiences are great mysteries preceded by sheer terror followed by an absolute sense of wonder why on earth we had ever been scared of what was such a natural – and pleasurable – act. Generally before going in and learning by doing, our knowledge of sex is woefully light.

Talking about sex just was not – and to a real extent is not – done. After all, who the hell are you going to ask? You really can’t talk to your parents or adult authority figures about it and your friends and peers know less than you do.

And then in the 80s came along Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a 4’7” dynamo who spoke frankly about masturbation, vaginas, dildos and gay sex in a charming German accent. She promoted good sex in ways that were frank, no-bullshit and direct. Yes, we would all blush like high school freshmen when she spoke of proper stimulation of the clitoris or about how tying up your partner wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She was one of the first proponents of sexual acceptance; there is no normal sexuality, just whatever turns you on and that’s your business and nobody else’s other than your sex partner.

Suddenly she was a pop culture icon; authoring dozens of books, hosting a crazy popular radio show and a fixture on late night talk shows. She conversed regularly with Johnny, Conan, Letterman and Arsenio. She was everywhere for a certain amount of time, a kind of brilliant grandmotherly sort who talked about the things none of us would ever talk to our grandmothers about. And, despite fame and wealth, she chose to live in the same Washington Square apartment she’d lived in for decades. She lives there still.

This documentary looks at an amazing cultural phenomenon that was and is Dr. Ruth who is still going strong at 90 years old plus. White follows her around in the days leading to her 90th birthday as she goes on a voyage into her past; back to Frankfurt where she was born, and to Switzerland where her mother and grandmother sent her as part of the kindertransport program that got young Jewish children out of Germany as the Nazis rose to power. She was sent by herself to a Swiss orphanage where she shined shoes and did chores; she wasn’t allowed to attend school at the time. Her only learning came from a former boyfriend who would allow her to read his schoolbooks after dark.

Much of her early story is told through animations here where she is portrayed as a sad, melancholy little girl and of course she had good reason to. She voraciously corresponded with her parents until the letters ominously stopped coming. It wasn’t until recently that she discovered the fate of her parents and grandmother, whom she adored. White’s cameras witness her research and it is a very powerful moment indeed. The animations are beautiful but they are a bit tone-deaf when compared to the big picture.

After the war Ruth went to Israel where she was trained as a sniper (!) until an explosion put shrapnel into her legs. She eventually went to get an education in Paris before moving to New York City where she got a doctorate, despite not having completed high school. She married three times and raised kids. She volunteered to do a radio spot about sex therapy which proved to be wildly popular and thus the legend of Dr. Ruth was born.

Throughout the film we journey back with Dr. Ruth to places significant to her in her past, from Switzerland to Israel to New York. We see that even pushing 90 years old, she remains a force of nature – lecturing, writing and teaching a pair of college classes. She continues to preach the gospel of good sex with her charm unabated despite her years.

Although Dr. Ruth prefers to leave politics out of her message, her message is in many ways political in and of itself, advocating tolerance for lifestyles different than your own, equality for women in the bedroom (and by extension, everywhere else) and that what a woman does with her body is her own business and nobody else’s. Her granddaughter tries to get her to admit to being a feminist but when her grandmother does not, is somewhat taken aback and even a little bit hurt by it. The thing of the matter is that while Dr. Ruth doesn’t consider herself a feminist, she has had a massive effect on the feminist movement.

It’s interesting to me that Dr. Ruth is, in many ways, less in touch with her own emotions than she is with everyone else’s. She does play things very close to the vest and while she’s open and candid about many of the events of her life, we get a sense of distance from who she really is as a person. For the most part all we see is the public persona of the famed sex therapist and perhaps that’s enough, although I might have wished for more.

Still in all, this is a well-made, well-researched documentary on a public figure who really hasn’t gotten her due in many ways. Because she talked so candidly about sex, there was a tendency not to take her as seriously as her accomplishments merited – too many jokes on Carson and Letterman perhaps contributed to that. While the overall tone might be a little bit more worshipful than I would have liked, nonetheless this is a fairly thorough examination of one of the most important pop culture figures of the last thirty years. Besides all that, her energy, her pixie-like sense of humor and her sheer good will are very energizing even on a TV or movie screen; this is certainly a worthy tonic for those in need of a pick-me-up.

Orlando readers will have to drive out to the Cinematique in Daytona in order to see this on the big screen; readers in South Florida are more fortunate in that the film is playing in various places around the region including the Miami Dade College Tower Theater and the Living Room Theater at Florida Atlantic University. It is also available at the Movies of Delray Beach and the Movies of Lake Worth while in the Tampa area it can be seen at the Tampa Theater downtown and the Burns Court Cinema in Sarasota. It is also playing in several other theaters around the state – check your local listings. If you don’t live close to any of those theaters, you’ll just have to wait until June 1 when the film will debut on Hulu.

REASONS TO SEE: The energy and humor of Dr. Ruth are infectious. Some of the moments here are devastating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is a little bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as frank sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt back in 1928; she started using her middle name Ruth following the war.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kinsey
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Clara

Silencer


 

Even the best of shots don’t always hit what they take aim at.

(2018) Action (Cinedigm) Johnny Messner, Danny Trejo, Robert LoSardo, Nikki Leigh, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Heather Johansen, Erik Aude, Edward Modlin II, Mariene Márquez, Mike Ferguson, Sofia Esmaili, Erin Michele Soto, Said Faraj, Tristian Eggerling, Ashlee Nicole Jordan, William Guirola, Nailia Lajoie, Noli Mollakuge, Tom Struckhoff, Victor Boneva, Rachael Santhon. Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr

 

Some men kill for their country; they are trained to do it and it is a job for most of them. However, when someone’s family is threatened, killing becomes much more than a job and if the person in question is a trained sniper, God help the one doing the threatening.

Frank (Messner) is a decorated ex-Marine whose military service was marred by the accidental killing of a child. The event haunted him and led him to seek a quiet life as a restorer of antique vehicles in Las Cruces, New Mexico. One of his clients, Ocho (Trejo) has cartel connections as well as a personal friendship with Frank going back a ways. When Ocho’s daughter is hit by a drunk driver and dies in her own driveway, Ocho wants vengeance. Frank agrees to help him get it but this will be his last job. You can guess how that’s going to work out.

When Frank stalks the drunk driver, he meets up with him and discovers there are children in the car and so he can’t quite bring himself to pull the trigger. The grief-stricken Ocho doesn’t care; he wants this guy dead and when Frank fails, Ocho sends his henchman Nels (Liddell, channeling Michael Rooker) to kidnap Frank’s stepdaughter and ends up shooting Frank’s girlfriend Cass (Leigh). That turns out to be a mistake; Frank along with his buddy Lazarus (Ortiz) go on a rampage that ends up with a bloody confrontation on Ocho’s Old Mexican hacienda.

This is essentially standard revenge action fare, with Messner doing a surprisingly good job in the role of an action antihero. Frank is a bit of a loose cannon, he has a drinking problem and tends to shut out the people he loves the most. However, push him a little bit and he turns into Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s crazy love child. There is a future for Messner in low budget action films and maybe some big budget ones if he gets a few breaks.

The dialogue tends to be florid and infected with clichés.. There are also some pacing problems particularly early on, although the ending is pretty nifty if you ask me. However, most of the actors chew the scenery with gusto which is distracting at times.

This is not something I would generally recommend; the movie is seriously flawed. However, fans of 80s and 90s action movies ought to get a kick out of this one and it is possible that Messner may be an action star in the not-so-distant future. For those reasons alone I give the movie a very mild thumbs up, as a better film critic than I might have said.

REASONS TO GO: Messner has a lot of potential as an action hero.
REASONS TO STAY: The film starts slowly (although it does pick up).
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liddell and Ortiz are notorious MMA rivals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Commando
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
It Will Be Chaos

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

The Magnificent Seven (2016)


Don't ever mess with Denzel.

Don’t ever mess with Denzel.

(2016) Western (MGM/Columbia) Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Hailey Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Joss, Cam Gigandet, Emil Beheshti, Mark Ashworth, Billy Slaughter, Dodge Prince, Matthew Posey, Dane Rhodes, Jody Mullins, Carrie Lazar. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

We often feel helpless about things. Those in power have too much money, too much power, too many guns. They have control over everything and we basically just have to take it and as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to exist while those who are in charge seem to have it easier and easier, and do more injustice to us with impunity. In a situation like that, who are you gonna call?

In the town of Rose Creek, it’s easy to recognize who is oppressing them; it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), a ruthless industrialist who runs the gold mine outside of town. He has bought and paid for the Sheriff (Rhodes) and treats his miners like slaves. Now he’s turned his sights to the town which he wants to destroy so he can further mine gold deposits he thinks might be there. He is trying to intimidate them into leaving – and it’s largely working, but some of the townspeople are willing to stay and fight. Those must be taught a lesson and that lesson ends with Matthew Cullen (Bomer), a good-hearted farmer, gunned down in front of the church which is also burned out.

His widow, Emma Cullen (Bennett) then goes in search of a gunman who can bring her if not justice at least vengeance. She finds Sam Chisolm (Washington), a duly licensed officer of the court from Wichita, Kansas – or a bounty hunter, which is what he really is. When Emma explains what’s happening in Rose Creek, at first he’s reluctant to get involved – until he finds out who is doing unto the good citizens of Rose Creek. Then he’s ready to take on an army.

He’ll need some tough characters to take on the murderous mercenaries that Bogue has hired. First up is gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt) who essentially owes Chisolm for getting his horse out of hock. After that came sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke) and his associate Billy Rocks (Lee), an immigrant from Asia and an expert with knives. Then there’s the Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and the Comanche brave Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Finally there’s Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), a legendary trapper.

It is seven hard men against an army. When they ride into town, they take Bogue’s men by surprise and take over the town but they know that Bogue, who is in Sacramento at the time, will be back with many, many more men. They train the townspeople to defend themselves and they also liberate the miners who also will make their stand there. But how can they, when the bad guys are so many, so much better armed and so much more experienced at fighting?

This is of course a remake of the classic John Sturges western of 1960 which in itself was a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Oscar in Training Day, is a big fan of Westerns in general and The Magnificent Seven was always one of his favorites. Feeling that the themes of tyranny and terrorism were even more apt today than they were in 1960, he took on the daunting task of remaking an iconic Western which in many ways made the career of Steve McQueen (in the Josh Faraday role).

The cast here is pretty top notch. Washington is at the top of his game, channeling Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper. Few actors in Hollywood today can play a badass as effectively as Washington can; despite the 70s porn star mustache, he is intimidating and tough as nails. He also looks pretty freaking good for a man in his 60s.

Pratt like Washington is an enormous star and here he brings his trademark irreverence to the role, making Josh Faraday not just comic relief (which he is occasionally) but a badass in his own right. This role isn’t going to advance his career any further but it isn’t going to knock it backwards either. Pratt has a tendency to play the same role over and over again recently and this is more of the same.

Hawke has a good turn as the sharpshooter whose Civil War experiences haunts him and has made him reluctant to take up the rifle again. For my money though, one of the performances you’ll remember is D’Onofrio, whose high squeaky voice doesn’t sound remotely like what we’re used to from him, but plays Horne honestly and with relative dignity. He just about steals the movie.

Fuqua gets points for casting ethnic actors into the proper roles; a Hispanic actor plays the Mexican, a Korean actor the Asian and an Inuit actor the Native American. There isn’t really any mention of racial prejudices which in that era were prevalent and extreme; few white people would have sought or accepted help from an African American, even if they were desperate, nor would they have looked to Mexican or Native help as well – most white settlers considered all three ethnic groups subhuman. I like the diversity of the cast, but I do think that ethnicity should have been addressed at least somewhat.

The final confrontation between Bogue and his men and the townspeople takes up the bulk of the movie and is epic in scope. There’s some decent fight choreography here and while it doesn’t up the ante in action scenes, it at least distinguishes itself as well staged and exciting. The gunfight is everything you’d want from a climactic battle, so kudos for that.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect this movie to be replacing the original in the hearts and minds. I’m pretty sure that isn’t why Fuqua made it. Unfortunately, it will be held up against the original – whether Seven Samurai or the 1960 version – and it will come up short against both of those. However, taken on its own merits it’s not that bad but to be honest not that bad doesn’t measure up when it comes to two classic predecessors.

REASONS TO GO: Washington and Pratt are huge stars. D’Onofrio turns in one of his most interesting performances in years.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing is really added to the source material here. The racism of the era is glossed over.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most westerns, there’s plenty of rootin’, tootin’ and shootin’. There’s also a bit of foul language and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the final score by Oscar winning composer James Horner as he passed away June 22, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Blue Jay

Monsters: Dark Continent


Doing the monster mash.

Doing the monster mash.

(2015) Action Horror (Radius) Johnny Harris, Sam Keeley, Joe Dempsie, Kyle Soller, Nicholas Pinnock, Parker Sawyers, Philip Arditti, Sofia Boutella, Michaela Coel, Hassan Sha’er, Uriel Emill Pollack, Jessie Nagy, Wael Baghdadi, Jacqueline Hicks, Amanda Kaspar, Donna-Marie Foster, Orlando Ebanks, Tonya Moss-Roberts, Billy Roberts, Lulu Dahl. Directed by Tom Green

It’s often hard to tell the monsters from the non-monsters. Sure, there may be some dead giveaways – fangs and claws dripping blood, for example but often the greatest monsters hide in the skins that blend in with everyone else.

Those who remember the predecessor to this film will know that a NASA probe had crash-landed in Northern Mexico, releasing alien spores that grew into life forms large and small (mostly large). The whole portion of the country had been cordoned off by both governments, designated an infected zone and few beyond the military were allowed to enter.

Ten years after, it’s discovered that a fragment of the probe had also landed in the Middle East and that part of the country had been infected as well. The United States military were conducting bombing raids on the gigantic creatures. The collateral damage of homes destroyed, lives lost and lives altered had infuriated the local populace who want the Americans to go away post-haste. Insurgent groups were now proving to be as deadly to American troops as the monsters themselves.

Four guys from Detroit who’d grown up together – Michael Parkes (Keeley), Frankie Maguire (Dempsie), Karl Inkelaar (Soller) and Shaun Williams (Sawyers) – and are marching off to war together. One last night of drug-fueled debauchery with strippers and they’re in-country. Heading their unit is Sgt. Noah Frater (Harris), a tough as nails sort who has no compunction shooting an insurgent leader from hiding while in disguise or leading his team in full uniform.

They have a mission to head into the boondocks to find an American squad who is missing. Frater and his right hand man Forrest (Pinnock) don’t have much faith that these still wet-behind-the-ears recruits will be of much use but they will have to make due. Of course, things go sideways and the group is under attack from insurgents who are as well-armed as they are, and who have a good deal of military savvy too. Soon the mission is put aside for survival as Parkes watches his friends die, and begins to suspect that Frater may not be altogether stable.

The first movie was something of a romance road movie hybrid with the monsters thrown in for good measure. Here, this is like a mash-up of Full Metal Jacket, American Sniper and Cloverfield.

The first film’s director Gareth Edwards rode the critical success of it straight into the recent reboot of Godzilla and so he was unavailable for the most part for this film, although he does carry a producer credit; his input was fairly limited. His absence is notable; the movie here has some elements of his style but it’s certainly completely different in tone. I have to say that in many ways this doesn’t measure up to the first film very well.

The monsters are more numerous in the sequel, with the gigantic skyscraper behemoths, herds of tentacle-covered gazelles (why do alien life forms always have tentacles in the movies?) and tiny little things that fit in a jewel box. The creature effects here are outstanding and the movie is better when the monsters are around.

The humans don’t fare as well. The soldiers are chest-thumping, gung ho hoo-rah sorts that have populated American films depicting the military to the point where you would wish for a behemoth to come and crush the lot of them just to get the stink of testosterone out of the air. I get it, this is a band of brothers. Now get on with the movie. This tendency is particularly ironic as the actors are all British and this is a British film.

There are some beautiful images here; the monsters themselves can be majestic and have a curious dignity; when mating, they create a light show that is absolutely thrilling. The Jordanian desert (where this was filmed) is stark and beautiful in its desolation. For the soldiers it must have seemed an alien landscape indeed, particularly for those used to the urban decay of the Motor City.

However, the beauty is marred by occasional confusion, at least on my part. The soldiers are kind of interchangeable and one can mix one up with another, other than the officers and of course Parkes. The plot occasionally meanders into “doesn’t-make-sense” territory as the soldiers go deeper into the desert, not unlike Benjamin Willard getting deeper into the jungle in Apocalypse Now. Maybe this is meant to be something of a tip of the hat to that film.

The point here is that the monsters are not the insurgents and they aren’t the aliens either. The Americans insist on seeing the things that are different from them culturally and biologically as threats and react to them with fear and violence. While Parkes, as the main character in many ways, grows into learning not to fear, Frater certainly doesn’t get it and is determined to complete his mission even if he’s the last survivor to do it.

I appreciate the parallels to our mis-adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq and am willing to take responsibility for my country’s often ill-advised forays into the Middle East. I don’t appreciate our the military bro-hood being emphasized to the point that I kind of got sick of it. I know the military can sometimes be a little too….enthusiastically military shall we say? Those of us who haven’t served likely don’t understand the culture and the intensity of their feelings. Life and death situations will do that to you. However, I can’t help if this is how the world sees us…and how much truth there might be to their viewpoint.

REASONS TO GO: Creature effects are striking. Captures chaos of war nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too gung-ho American in places. Detroit prologue a bit too long. Too many interchangeable characters.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic war violence, disturbing images, plenty of salty language, nudity and sexual content, drug use and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scoot McNairy, the lead actor in the original Monsters doesn’t appear in this movie but he is an executive producer on the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Objective
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring commences!

American Sniper


Taking aim on controversy.

Taking aim on controversy.

(2014) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Luke Grimes, Keir O’Donnell, Sammy Sheik, Leonard Roberts, Cory Hardrict, Eric Ladin, James Ryen, Jake McDorman, Eric Aude, Navid Nagahban, Mido Hamada, Kathe Mazur, Sam Jaeger, Chance Kelly, Elise Robertson, Ben Reed, Marnette Patterson. Directed by Clint Eastwood

As we deal with the aftermath of our country’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as it seems we are preparing to do battle with ISIS, it behooves us to seek out the aftermath of those who fought those wars. War is never easy on those who fight it, regardless of the reasons they have for leaving their homes and their families and going off to some godforsaken place to kill other human beings. We often take that part of our armed forces for granted.

Chris Kyle (Cooper), a proud Texan and would-be cowboy, goes because he feels that after 9-11, it is his duty to protect a country that he loves. He leaves behind a wife Taya (Miller), a strong woman of no uncertain opinions who eventually falls for the burly Texan despite having exceedingly low expectations when first they met. He joins the Navy SEALs mainly because he believes them to be the toughest SOBs in the military.

Kyle proves to be a gifted sharpshooter who is perfect for sniper duty. His first action requires him to make an agonizing decision when it seems that a young boy is getting ready to hurl an explosive at an American convoy in full sight of his mother, who handed him the device. He waits until the last possible second, before it becomes apparent that his intentions are to blow up the convoy; then Kyle shoots him dead, and then his mother for good measure when it appears she’s going to finish the job her son was unable to. Far from being a moment of triumph, it deeply affects the young SEAL deeply. When he sees a terrorist (Hamada) put a drill through the head of a child while his parents watch, he decries the Iraqis as savages and it’s hard not to argue with him.

Kyle goes through four tours, and each time he returns home as Taya puts it, he’s not really there. He’s nervous, jumpy, living very much inside his head while Taya tries desperately to reach him, to get her husband back. By now Kyle is also a dad, and while he goes through the motions of being a father and assures VA psychotherapists as well as his immediate family that everything is fine, everything clearly is not. He only seems to be whole in country.

As he piles up the confirmed kills, he gets the nickname of Legend which at first makes him uncomfortable but eventually he grows to accept. It is a mark of the respect in which his peers hold him as he becomes the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, for all the lives of American military men he saves with his unerring aim and precise shots. There is however a counterpart within the ranks of the enemy, one known as Mustafa (Sheik) who is in many ways a mirror image of Kyle – a family man, one obsessed by his work and absolutely deadly. Somehow Kyle needs to survive his tours and come back to his wife and family – a whole man.

Clint Eastwood has become over the years a great American film director and although he has had his share of missteps (cough Jersey Boys cough cough) his consistency has been as good as any. In a lot of ways this is going to be counted as one of his best works ever, although it is steeped in controversy more because of the subject matter than anything else.

There are those who have decried the film because in their minds it glorifies an individual who shouldn’t be glorified. Many have pointed out that the real Kyle, on whose autobiography this is based, consistently identified Muslims as savages (which he does in the film on one occasion) and has been labeled a racist because of it. He has also been taken to task for exaggerations or making up incidents out of whole cloth.

These are two separate issues and on the first, I can only say that it was common for veterans of war to dehumanize those they fought against. It is one way for the psyche to cope with having to kill other human beings. If they aren’t human, if they’re savages, it makes it easier to justify what you’re doing. Thinking that way may not necessarily be politically correct but it’s at least understandable.

The other can also be looked upon as something of a Texas thing. Now, making up a story in which former governor and ex-Navy SEAL himself Jesse Ventura was rude and insulting to fellow SEALs who were mourning a friend and getting clocked by Kyle is wrong and Ventura – who has been excoriated for doing so – has every right to defend his reputation, even if it means suing the widow of the man responsible because she is after all profiting from the story in a matter of speaking, since the story is a part of his best-selling book. While I give veterans a good deal of leeway in their behaviors, they are nonetheless responsible for their actions when they return home and are liable for the consequences of those actions.

That said, I don’t think this film glorifies war at all or this one in particular – at one point, at a soldier’s funeral, an unidentified woman who I assume is the soldier’s mother reads a handwritten eulogy condemning the war – but rather tries to give us insight into those who fought it. For me, the most compelling material is when Kyle is home, struggling to be home and be present with his family. It takes a good deal of time for him to finally want to be home, to finally let go of his feeling of duty and to get past his need to be a hero which the real Kyle was often accused of and Eastwood seems to agree was part of the man’s psychological make-up.

Cooper, who added 40 pounds for the role, really inhabits the role of Kyle, who actually resembled the late wrestler Chris Benoit in reality. It’s a mesmerizing performance certainly worthy of the Oscar nomination he received. Cooper’s Kyle moves from a fairly normal aw-shucks cowboy to a heroic sniper in the field to a terse, uncommunicative stone wall of a man at home. It’s a brilliant performance that shouldn’t be missed.

Sienna Cooper’s performance as Taya is also flawless. It’s so good I wish the script and Eastwood would have devoted more time to her; at times she almost becomes one-dimensional because she’s trying to convince her husband to leave the war behind and be home. How she kept her family together, how she weathered those times when he was home and not with her (it must have been heartbreaking) would have added more nuance to the film overall. I’d have gladly sacrificed some of the battle sequences of Kyle in country for that.

About those battle sequences; they can be pretty intense and for those who might be sensitive to such things, you should be forewarned that there are scenes that are quite disturbing. However, the rest of us will find them, as I did, absolutely mesmerizing and keep you on the edge of your seat, as I was.

I don’t know why we need our heroes to be absolutely perfect. Nobody is, and Chris Kyle certainly wasn’t. I don’t know that I agree with all of his views or approve of some of the things he said. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great soldier, an expert marksman or a hero for saving the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands of American troops. I do believe that for most people, how you feel about the war will color your perceptions of this film. The conservative right are hailing the movie as a masterpiece (which it isn’t – Unforgiven was far better) while the progressive left are decrying it as propaganda which it also isn’t. What it is when you get right down to it is a terrific movie about war itself, about surviving it not only physically but emotionally and mentally as well, and how hard it can be to come home when the tour of duty ends.

REASONS TO GO: Cooper is brilliant. Realistic and often heart-stopping battle sequences. Admirably allows viewers to make their own minds up.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally too intense for the sensitive. I would have liked to have gotten a little deeper into the mind of Taya.
FAMILY VALUES: Much gunfire and war violence, some of it quite disturbing. There’s also plenty of colorful language with some sexual references involved.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Chris Kyle and the real Marcus Luttrell of Lone Survivor fame actually met in SEAL school and became close friends which they remained for the rest of Kyle’s life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: A Most Violent Year