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

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The Holly Kane Experiment


“Now, this won’t hurt a bit…”

(2017) Thriller (108 Media) Kirsty Averton, Nicky Henson, James Rose, Lindsey Campbell, Matthew Neal, Sophie Barker, Justin Hayward, Simon Hepworth, Emma Davies, Will Harrison-Wallace, Euan Macnaughton, Tom Cox, Tom Clear, Nicholas Fagerberg, Steve Doyle, Axel Kaae, Aidan Creegan, Stevie Raine, George Stocks, Claire Ashton, Sian Dobson. Directed by Tom Sands

 

There aren’t a lot of things we can be sure of in this life but one is that our thoughts are our own. However, technology is coming in which perhaps we cannot even be sure of that any longer.

Holly Kane (Averton) is a psychiatrist in Brighton who has come up with a means of implanting thoughts into the heads of other people, using sensory deprivation tanks and subliminal audio. She may seem a beautiful, competent professional on the surface but just below she is deeply terrified of becoming like her sister Rosalyn (Barker) who is committed to a mental institution.

Her technique is too much like brainwashing and after being invited to help a patient undergoing an appendectomy do so without anesthesia strictly utilizing her technique, she finds herself being sued by the hospital that asked for her help. No good deed will go unpunished, right? However, her savior comes in the form of Marvin Greenslade (Henson), a pioneer in the field of subliminal communication and a personal hero of hers. He offers to fund her research and gives her office space in his building to do it. Although he’s 70-something, he is clearly attracted to the much younger Holly.

Holly’s personal life is pretty much a mess; her best friend is Jeannie (Campbell) who in addition to being a brilliant chemist is also a bit of a party girl. She is the one who is supplying Holly with the highly illegal substances she needs to concoct a liquid that opens up the mind for adjustment. It also provides a psychedelic trip that while it wouldn’t do Kubrick proud is nonetheless fun to watch.

She’s also getting into the handsome young Scot Dennis MacIntyre (Rose) who although a bit on the scruffy side is nonetheless quite into Holly. However, she calls it off with him when she finds out from Greenslade that he’s a former spy; she lambastes him for lying to her – a lie by omission but still. In any case, as Dennis begins to dig deeper into Greenslade, it turns out that Marvin isn’t the wonderful guy he makes himself out to be. He’s got government connections at the highest levels and might be looking to use Holly’s technique as a means of brainwashing terrorists. He also is using her own technique against her to make her believe that she wants to have sex with him and she eventually does although judging from her expression she’s clearly not enjoying it. He also uses the subliminal audio to tell her to trust only him and to distrust Dennis. Using some nasty spy sorts like, for example, Carl Gower (Neal) who also messes up MacIntyre’s mind when he starts to get too close, Greenslade has eyes and ears everywhere. Can the two escape the clutches of Greenslade before he wipes out their minds permanently?

What I liked the most about this film is that it really evokes a 70s espionage film vibe from the pulsating electronic score to the paranoia to the plot twists and turns. While the suspense for the climactic chase isn’t built up as much as I would have liked, nonetheless this had a distinct cold war feel to it You were never quite sure who you could trust.

The character of Holly Kane is written a bit strangely. At times she’s emotionally closed off; other times she’s very emotional as when she visits her sister after a long absence. Averton plays her as well as can be expected, particularly during one of the most curious sex scenes in movie history when she has sex with Greenslade; her face is so emotionless and her body is so rigid that Greenslade may as well have been schtupping a plank. Otherwise Averton plays Kane cool which goes along with the overall vibe. Even when she’s partying Holly is a bit on the reserved side. There’s a scene in the deprivation tank in which Holly is masturbating which kind of comes from left field; even there her expression is almost clinical.

I’m not sure why the psychiatrist has to look like a super-model. I am also not sure why that she has to be saved from rape and brainwashing by a man who is at least as in trouble as she is. After going to the trouble of establishing Holly Kane as a strong, independent and brilliant woman, writer Mick Sands then turns her into a typical victim. Just once I’d like to see a woman like Dr. Kane not need rescuing from a guy but be able to take matters into her own hands.

The chase scene as Holly and Dennis try to escape the clutches of Greenslade and his goons is oddly flat. One doesn’t get the sense of imminent danger that should go with a scene like this. Time and time again, goons burst into the place where they think the two are only to find them gone. I don’t remember seeing their pursuers in the same frame as them at any time during the chase. It could have used a little more of a thrill factor.

Despite the flaws this is a satisfactory film and even a little bit more. It gets the tone right and although it could have used a bit more oomph in the suspense generation, it nonetheless keeps you guessing until the final chase. Considering the miniature budget for this thing, there’s a lot of bang for your buck here.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere and paranoia of a 70s espionage film is recreated here in a good way. The concept that both the heroic leads may be clinically insane is interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels anti-climactic towards the end. The surveillance photo stops get to be annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: Sensuality, some nudity, rape, drug use, violence and profanity throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Sands directed his first feature, Nazi Vengeance (2014) at the age of 24. His brother Mick wrote both of his features to date.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Parallax View
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Bang! The Bert Berns Story

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

Captain America: Civil War


Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Brűhl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, John Kani, John Slattery, Hope Davis, Alfre Woodard. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

 

In this post-911 world, we often have to consider the importance of security versus freedom. How much power do we allow our government to have? Is it worth giving up our freedom to be protected? And when does it stop being worth it?

Following the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron the Avengers have continued to operate without the guidance of Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man but they still continue to clean out the remnants of Hydra and travel the globe to stop threats of terrorism and barbarity. They are on one such mission to stop Crossbones (Grillo) from obtaining a biological weapon. They do stop the former SHIELD agent turned supervillain but at a staggering cost.

The nations of the world can no longer stand idly by while their citizens are reduced to collateral damage. They sign a treaty known as the Sokovia Accords (named for the fictional country that was decimated by the Avengers battle with Ultron) to put the Avengers under United Nations control, only sent on missions approved by the Security Council.

Stark has put his pen to paper and signed already and expects his good friend Steve Rogers (Evans) a.k.a. Captain America to do the same but to Stark’s shock, Rogers refuses. He feels that the Avengers will not only function less effectively as the tools of bureaucrats and politicians, but that without self-autonomy, more lives will be lost than saved.

It’s not an easy question and not everyone falls on the same side. The Avengers eventually become two different teams, at war with one another. Things get worse when Bucky Barnes (Stan) – a.k.a. the Winter Soldier and Cap’s friend from pre-World War II Brooklyn has had the mind control that was implanted into him by Hydra used to send him on a rampage that ends up with a high-profile murder. T’challa (Boseman) a.k.a. The Black Panther, ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, rich in minerals (including the rare vibranium that is what Cap’s shield is constructed out of) and technology, vows to take down Barnes and execute him. Cap can’t let that happen as it, strictly speaking, isn’t Bucky’s fault.

So it is friends against friends, the U.S. government against the Avengers, Iron Man against Captain America. No matter what, this won’t end well and the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be changed permanently as a result.

This is in some ways the most complicated and thought-provoking film in Marvel’s history. It does tackle a subject that has real world ramifications and comes up with no easy answers – it also doesn’t cop out either, which is to the filmmaker’s credit. When those who ask why the Marvel films are so much more popular than the DC films (at least currently), the simple answer is that Marvel is making better movies. With the exception of some of the Batman films (by Messrs. Burton and Nolan) Marvel’s movies are more interesting, have more character development, and quite frankly are more fun to watch.

Civil War is a little bit darker in hue than the majority of Marvel’s films, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in Gotham. There are no real villains in it for one thing – yes, there is a character named Zemo (Brűhl) who shares a last name with old Marvel villain Baron Zemo who was a Nazi mad scientist and a Hydra operative, but this Zemo is actually in a lot of ways a sympathetic character who has reasons for his madness. And the conflict between Cap and Shellhead are between two heroes doing what they believe is right.

Downey in fact steals the film from Captain America; he is tortured by the damage he has done as a superhero and as a man. His relationship is tanking and he believes that the world would be a better place if the Avengers accepted some oversight and accountability. His anguish not only at what he has caused to occur but in the conflict with his friend Cap is palpable. Downey is an Oscar-nominated actor and this is by far his best performance as Iron Man yet.

The action sequences have to be at the core of any superhero film and they are spectacular here. There’s a fight at a German airport that may go down as one of the best in Marvel history and it utilizes the talents of many of the supporting characters and a couple of new ones, including the previously mentioned Black Panther but also the brand new Spider-Man (Holland). Holland may be the best Spider-Man yet (sorry Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) and acquits himself well both as Spider-Man and as Peter Parker. Based on the snippet of him and Aunt May (Tomei) in this film, I am much more interested in seeing Spider-Man Homecoming next year than I already was.

All of the characters here other than a few who have little more than cameos are shown to be quite human and as humans are, imperfect. This makes the superheroes more relatable to everyone. Who hasn’t had relationship troubles, or felt like they didn’t belong, or chafed at having their autonomy taken from them, or mistrusted authority, or agonized over inventing a self-aware robot that nearly wiped out the human race? Okay, maybe not the last one.

The plot here is dense and for those not really immersed in the Marvel Universe, it may all be too much. In many ways, this is the first Marvel film I felt that it would be actually advantageous to have seen all of the ones preceding it in order to understand it better. It can still stand on its own, but I have to admit that the more you know about the MCU, the easier this will go down. There are also a whole lot of characters here and their relationships and motivations may not be clear to everyone. I suppose that’s just a byproduct of having so many films in the MCU now.

The Russos have shown themselves very capable directors. While I don’t think this film quite measures up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier in terms of quality, it’s damn close. The brothers have been handed the reins to the next to Avengers films and this one shows that the franchise is in safe hands.

REASONS TO GO: Great battle sequences. Excellent debate starter (security vs. freedom). Portrays the heroes as fallible and human.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too much plot and character. Occasionally confusing, particularly to casual viewers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of superhero violence, action and mayhem, more than you can shake a stick at.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 2 hours and 27 minutes long, this is the longest Marvel movie to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: My Love, Don’t Cross That River

Eye in the Sky


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London Has Fallen


Gerard Butler is sick and tired of poor reviews.

Gerard Butler is sick and tired of poor reviews.

(2016) Action (Gramercy) Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Colin Salmon, Alon Aboutboul, Waleed Zuaiter, Adel Bencherif, Mehdi Dehbi, Shivani Ghai, Penny Downie, Deborah Grant, Nigel Whitmey, Andrew Pleavin, Julia Montgomery Brown, Elsa Mollien. Directed by Babak Najafi

What do you do when you’ve already foiled a hostile takeover of the White House? Why, for most of us it would be resting on our laurels. For any action hero worth his salt, that’s just the beginning.

But Mike Banning (Butler) has had enough. Despite the fact that he has the world’s best tough-guy name (just say it out loud over and over again – you’ll get what I mean), his wife (Mitchell) is having a rug rat and is due any day now. He wants to settle down and be a dad and a husband. He’s even writing out his resignation letter.

But when you’re a Secret Service Agent with a Special Forces background who goes jogging with the President every morning that’s not such an easy task. When the Prime Minister of Great Britain has a fatal heart attack, the world is coming to London to attend the funeral, and President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart) is not one to miss the funeral of a world leader. So with Banning’s boss (Bassett) breathing down his neck to be in charge of the President’s security while he’s in London, he can’t really say no.

It’s a good thing he decides to go because bingo bango bongo five world leaders are assassinated and the President’s chopper is shot down by terrorists. Like most terrorists, they have an axe to grind with the United States, but unlike most terrorists they seem to be well organized, infiltrating nearly every stratum of security in Britain. Getting the President to the U.S. Embassy is job number one for Banning but he’ll have to negotiate the streets of London which are now overrun with bad guys impersonating cops, soldiers and Central Casting.

While I liked the predecessor Olympus Has Fallen just fine, this is a step backward from its predecessor. The first film was a wild ride in the vein of Die Hard; this one just dies hard. The action is on the pedantic side, never a good thing. Action junkies may end up yawning which is always a bad thing – there is a definite been there-done that feel to the action. I don’t expect them to reinvent the wheel but there needs to be a lot more passion invested than apparently was put in here.

The shame is that I have always really liked Gerard Butler as an actor and you can tell he’s really doing his best with a subpar script. Butler is one of those guys that you’d probably have a great time sharing a beer with and telling tall tales to in a pub. He’s what I call a working class actor; he’s not  the sort of guy who gets offered roles that win Oscars, but he gets the job done day in and day out and in the end comes off as a likable guy, even when he’s playing a real douchebag (as in Gods of Egypt). I think he doesn’t get the respect he deserves, either from critics or casting agents but that’s just me talking.

He has a decent supporting cast, but many of them are wasted in roles that feel like they mostly ended on the cutting room floor – Leo and Forster have both got Oscar nominations on their resumes but barely get a line or two in here. Morgan Freeman, maybe one of the most respected actors of this generation, has a little bit more to do but not by much; his role is essentially display dismay, frustration and once in awhile deliver a “we’re gonna kick your ass” zinger as is necessary in most action films. Like the previous one, there is a bit of a right wing dick swing vibe here as the President gets tough on terrorism directly – with a machine gun. Go, POTUS, Go!

I get that with most action movies you really don’t want to think about the plot too closely as there are often logical holes in them but there has to be at least a LITTLE bit of logic; most people understand that the President is protected by a virtual army and when he goes to a foreign country, he is literally surrounded at all times by Secret Service agents and if his helicopter was shot down in a friendly country like England, there would be a rescue operation already in place and scrambled even before the chopper hit the ground.

Still, even as mindless entertainment goes, there is a bit too much disbelief to suspend here. I’m one of those people who thinks that there is something noble about creating a vehicle for people to forget about their troubles for a couple of hours but this movie could have used a serious rewrite (and it got several, judging from the number of screenwriters credited) or more likely scrapping the project altogether. While I wouldn’t mind seeing the character Mike Banning again, I would rather see him in a much better movie than this. Check it out if mediocrity is your thing, but don’t make too much of an effort to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty action sequences. Butler is excessively likable.
REASONS TO STAY: Really hokey script. Lacks any sort of credibility and any sort of logic.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of action, mayhem and violence and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fredrick Bond was set to direct but dropped out due to creative differences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White House Down
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: TBA

Spy


Fish out of water.

Fish out of water.

(2015) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jessica Chaffin, Miranda Hart, Morena Baccarin, Will Yun Lee, Carlos Ponce, Richard Brake, Raad Rawi, Michael McDonald, Peter Serafinowicz, Nargis Fakhri, 50 Cent, Ben Falcone, Katie Dippold, Jamie Denbo. Directed by Paul Feig

We are, as a moviegoing public, fascinated by spies. Of course, there’s the glamour – playing baccarat in Monte Carlo, wearing designer suits and dresses, using sophisticated gadgets that look like ordinary items, only deadly. Who wouldn’t want that kind of life?

Certainly Susan Cooper (McCarthy) does, to the point that she works for the Central Intelligence Agency. She is this close to getting an assignment in the field, but she winds up being a kind of handler/assistant to debonair field agent Bradley Fine (Law). She’s also quite smitten with the devilishly handsome spy, but he won’t give her a second look. In fact, nobody gives her much respect, not even the deputy chief (Janney) who supervises the team.

Unfortunately, while trying to discover the location of a nuclear bomb that is up for sale to the highest terrorist bidder, things go horribly, terribly awry. It turns out that the bomb seller, Reyna Boyanov (Byrne), has somehow identified every one of the CIA field agents. With a nuclear bomb in play and crippled by the fact that every agent she sends up against the bitchy Boyanov is sure to be spotted, the harried deputy chief is forced to send in someone that Reyna doesn’t know – Susan Cooper is finally getting her chance to be a field agent.

She is aided in her quest by gawky fellow basement dweller Nancy (Hart) and over-the-top touchy-feely Italian agent Aldo (Serafinowicz). She’ll also be hindered by egotistical, braggadocios agent Rick Ford (Statham) who, like about everyone else in the CIA, thinks that Susan doesn’t have a chance out in the field and will only mess things up. Susan, however, has a few surprises in store and is determined to complete her first mission. Will it be however, the last thing she does?

I’ve always blown hot and cold about McCarthy; she shows flashes of comic brilliance but Hollywood seems interested in casting her only as a boorish slob or an overbearing bully. One gets the sense that Hollywood can’t see past her weight, which coincidentally is Susan Cooper’s problem. One person who does see more in McCarthy is Feig, who has been at the helm for her three best performances yet – Bridesmaids, The Heat and now this.

McCarthy has always been adept at physical comedy, although it has often been to her detriment (having to do with her size) but here she outdoes herself. That’s not what makes McCarthy’s performance so memorable though; it’s that she portrays Susan as intelligent, capable and dare I say it, pretty. She turns all of our prejudices about overweight women on their ear, and for that alone one should applaud this movie, and Feig and McCarthy specifically.

What holds this movie back is that the story is really kind of generic spy stuff. We’ve seen the plot in movies and on television many times before. However, it is executed very well  here, with some cool high-tech sets in the CIA and lovely exotic (to American eyes anyway) locations. I would also have liked to see the villains be less bitchy and more evil. A spy movie is only as good as its villain and while Byrne is delicious as Reyna, one doesn’t get the kind of threat from her as one might from Auric Goldfinger, Ernst Blofeld or even Siegfried of KAOS.

Still, McCarthy gets to be James Bond and how cool is that for her? You can tell that she’s having the time of her life in this role, and it translates onto the screen and audiences are picking up on that, judging from the box office and audience test scores. It is said that Fox intended this all along to be a new franchise for them and quite likely it will be and I for one can’t wait for a sequel if McCarthy wants to do one.

REASONS TO GO: Statham plays against type and McCarthy is at her best. Some nifty sets and locations.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really explore new territory. Villains not villainous enough.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language, some violence, a little bit of sexual content and a brief scene of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Feig is a huge fan of Jason Statham and wrote the part of Rick Ford specifically for him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Means War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Departed