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

From Russia, With Love


Much better than a mint on your pillow.

Much better than a mint on your pillow.

(1963) Spy Thriller (United Artists) Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee, Eunice Gayson, Walter Gotell, Francis de Wolf, George Pastell, Nadja Regin, Lois Maxwell, Aliza Gur, Martine Beswick, Vladek Sheybal, Anthony Dawson, Lisa “Leila” Guiraut, Hasan Ceylan, Peter Bayliss, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Terence Young

While most people remember the first James Bond movie (Dr. No) and the third (Goldfinger) the casual moviegoer probably doesn’t remember the second. It was a box office smash, particularly in Britain where it set a box office record in only 82 days of release. Still, it doesn’t get a lot of the love that other Bond films over the years has attained.

James Bond (Connery), MI-6 agent 007 has irritated SPECTRE, a criminal organization set on world domination led by a mysterious Number One (Dawson) who pets a white cat constantly. Planning mastermind Kronsteen (Sheybal) has come up with a plan to steal a Lekter cryptographic device from the Soviet Union and sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No in the previous movie. Number One engages Number Three, Rosa Klebb (Lenya) to run the operation. She in turn utilizes SPECTRE agent Red Grant (Shaw) as her primary field operative.

However, the way to get to Bond is to use a beautiful woman and the way to get to the Lekter is to use Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) to lure in bond with the promise of a Lekter. Of course M (Lee) and Bond know it’s a trap but if they can get their hands on a Lekter, that would be a considerable coup. Bond goes to Istanbul where station chief Ali Kerim Bey (Armendariz) meets him. Grant follows Bond around, wreaking havoc and pitting the Soviets against the Turks and Brits. Romanova rendezvous with Bond and in keeping with – and adding to – a Bond movie tradition, falls head over heels in love with the British spy.

However, SPECTRE is dogging their every move, keeping Bond alive until he can literally deliver the Lekter into their hands. Romanova, who thought she was acting on behalf of the Soviet’s in-house SMERSH agency, is now ready to defect for real. There’ll be Murder on the Orient Express and a thrilling boat chase and of course face-to-face confrontations with both Klebb and Grant before all is said and done. And I could tell you how the movie ends but you don’t have to be a genius to figure out what it’s going to be.

Young was going for a more realistic atmosphere  this time around. While there are gadgets including a fairly useful briefcase and the Lekter itself, this is mostly straight-up action as opposed to later Bond movies. Connery cemented his stardom as it was very apparent that this was a franchise that was going to have staying power – this even before Goldfinger would make it a cultural phenomenon. He’s in so many ways the ultimate male circa 1963. He’s ruggedly handsome, tough as nails, absolute catnip to women and knowledgeable as well as cultured. We mere mortal males couldn’t possibly compete against all that and there were more than a few wives at the time who, seeing this, eyed their husbands with a critical expression. They’re still doing that today, if Da Queen is any indication.

Bianchi is one of the most physically beautiful of the Bond girls, although the former Miss Italy didn’t really have the charisma of the best of them – Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Ursula Andress and Halle Berry come to mind immediately. She’s usually lumped in with Lois Chiles and Olivia D’Abo as one of the less popular girls of the series. I don’t know that it’s fair but she certainly is easy on the eyes.

Llewellyn makes his first appearance as Q, although the head of Q branch is identified by his character’s real name, Major Boothroyd here. Istanbul makes a lovely and exotic backdrop for most of the movie and of course who can go wrong with the most romantic journey in the world, the Orient Express. The winning formula of exotic locations, jaw-dropping beautiful women and clever gadgets really got its start here.

The movie is extremely dated in a lot of ways, particularly in its attitudes towards women who are mostly portrayed as either besotted creatures whose place is in the bedroom and are in need of a manly slap once in awhile, or femme fatales who are out to emasculate if not outright murder any men who come across their path. Even the wise-cracking Moneypenny (Maxwell) really doesn’t get much respect.

Armendariz, who was terminally ill when he made the movie leading Young to film most of his scenes first, is one of the more charming Bond allies and sets the bar for those that would follow. Lenya, best known as the star of her husband Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and an Oscar nominee for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a shrill but deadly efficient killer whose fight with Bond is one of the biggest kicks in the movie. Shaw, who went on to greater fame as Captain Quint in Jaws shows off washboard abs and a sardonic wit. Grant is a brilliant agent provocateur that creates a good deal of havoc here and it’s fun watching him work.

Having recently re-watched the movie, I get the sense that while it often gets short shrift among all of the Bond movies, there is reason for it. The movie doesn’t jell as well as most of the Connery Bond films and while Klebb and Grant are fine antagonists, they lack the over-the-top panache of classic Bond villains Goldfinger, Blofeld and Largo.

Those things aside and despite being terribly dated in many ways the movie still remains a terrific piece of entertainment. Certainly those tired of seeing the same three or four Bond films over and over again could do worse than to use this one as a change of pace.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the more reality-based Bonds. Armendariz is charming and Lenya and Shaw both formidable foes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One of the more dated Bond movies.
FAMILY VALUES: Some era-appropriate sensuality and era-appropriate violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daniela Bianchi’s voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford due to Bianchi’s heavily Italian-accented English. This was also the final Bond film that Ian Fleming got to see as he passed away shortly after it was released.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Blu-Ray edition is loaded with a plethora of extras that should satisfy most Bond fans, including a gallery of still images, radio and TV promos, featurettes on the late Harry Saltzman, the exotic filming locations (some of which weren’t quite so exotic), a comparison between Fleming and Raymond Chandler and an interview with Fleming by the CBC.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $78.9M on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/streaming), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (purchase only),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Top Five

John Wick


Sometimes, Keanu Reeves wonders if he shouldn't have taken the other pill.

Sometimes, Keanu Reeves wonders if he shouldn’t have taken the other pill.

(2014) Action (Lionsgate) Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Moore, Daniel Bernhardt, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Regan, Lance Reddick, Keith Jardine, Tait Fletcher, Kazy Tauginas, Alexander Frekey, Thomas Sadoski, Randall Duk Kim, Kevin Nash, Clarke Peters, Gameela Wright. Directed by Chad Stahelski

If action movies teach us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with a man’s family. You DEFINITELY don’t mess with his car. But if you steal his car and kill his dog? Not a good idea, even if you’re the son of a Russian mobster.

But that’s just what Iosef Tarasov (Allen) does. But it’s not the act itself that pisses off his father Viggo (Nyqvist). It’s who he did it to. Check out this conversation the Russian mobster had with Aurelio (Leguizamo), the owner of a chop shop;
VIGGO: I understand that you struck my son.
AURELIO: He stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.
*pause*
VIGGO: Oh.
*click*

There are some things you just do not do. You don’t walk on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. And you do not steal the car and kill the dog of John Wick (Reeves), particularly when the dog was the last gift from his recently deceased wife (Moynahan). Who is John Wick may you ask? He’s a retired contract killer. He’s the sort who can walk into a room and kill three guys with a pencil. That’s right, a pencil. If you want someone who is untouchable dead and in the ground, you’d call John Wick. There wasn’t anyone he couldn’t kill. Even other contract killers were terrified of him; that’s why they call him The Boogey Man. And not the one that KC and the Sunshine Band sang about either.

Viggo knows that John Wick won’t stop at his son; he’ll go after his entire organization, everyone who ever knew his son and a lot of people who didn’t. John Wick is like the ice age; where he comes through nobody lives. The only people who like John Wick are funeral directors. You get the general idea.

And that’s all you need to know about the plot. Mainly the movie goes from one action sequence to another. Director Chad Stahelski comes from a stuntman background (he was in fact Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix) and his experience shows. The fight sequences are mind-blowing, perfectly choreographed and exciting as hell. They are most definitely the highlight of the film, kinetic whirling dervishes of leaping assassins and flying bullets.

Reeves, never the most charismatic of actors under the best of circumstances, has a role that really plays to his strengths here. John Wick rarely shows any emotion, although he has one speech to Viggo late in the movie where all his rage seethes out of him like a terrible demonic presence and Reeves actually does an outstanding job with it. He is also a fairly graceful action hero, and is said to have performed about 90% of the stunts himself.

The supporting cast is very able, with Palicki showing her fangs as a gleeful assassin, Nyqvist showing his villain chops and Dafoe has a role as a kind of Zen Yoda-like assassin/mentor for John Wick. McShane, Leguizamo and Reddick are reliable and Alfie Allen, Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones, may be setting himself up for a career portraying men the audience would like to see die painfully.

If you go looking for something that breaks the action film mold, well, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of that here – or anywhere else given the state of action movies in 2014. There isn’t much of a plot (the revenge thing has been done to death) but the action is so outstanding that you don’t much care. There is a place in this world for mindless entertainment and as that kind of movie goes John Wick is better than most.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing action sequences. Right in Reeves’ wheelhouse.
REASONS TO STAY: Kind of a series of action sequences in search of a plot.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of violence, some of it bloody. Loads of foul language. Some drug use as well. Dog cruelty may be upsetting to some.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth time Reeves has played a character named John in the movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic (2011)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Small Town Murder Songs