The Kill Team (2019)


In battle there is brotherhood.

(2019) War (A24Alexander Skarsgǻrd, Nat Wolff, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc, Osy Ikhile, Rob Morrow, Anna Francolini, Oliver Ritchie, Edd Campbell Bird, Adam James, Elham Ehsas, Tunji Kasim, Ian Attard, Taz Skylar, Zackary Momoh, Luka Schardan, Julio Perillan, Edward J. Bentley, Andreas Karraas, Amani Zafdoe. Directed by Dan Krauss

 

War is far from simple, although it is sometimes characterized that way. There are those who see it as the ultimate expression of masculinity, the place where young men go to prove themselves men. Others see it as institutionalized murder. It does require those who go to war to kill or be killed, putting them in a constant state of high stress. It also asks of them to violate some of the most sacred precepts both from a societal standpoint as well as a moral one – thou shalt not kill.

18-year-old Andrew Briggman (Wolff) has enlisted following high school. He wants to make a difference, to protect his country from terrorists and perhaps to some extent, be all he can be. Earning the pride of his father (Morrow), he goes to Afghanistan with a young man’s expectations. He quickly learns that Afghanistan is nothing like what he expected. Fortunately, he has a sergeant (Ikhile) who is a hearts and minds kind of guy, trying to win over the Afghan people with kindness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work out too well for him.

Enter Sergeant Deeks (Skarsgǻrd) who is of the “speak softly and carry a big gun” persuasion. He is far more interested in winning over the hearts and minds of his command than in those of the locals. To Deeks, everyone is a potential enemy and he has no trouble sorting out the good from the bad – they’re all bad in his view and treats them accordingly. He appeals to the machismo of his men, rewarding them for their more bloodthirsty tendencies.

At first, Briggman buys into it but as he sees his platoon fall further and further from decency to the point where they are executing locals for sport, he is horrified. When he tries to report what he’s seen, he discovers Deeks has friends in all sorts of places and with Deeks falsifying reports, it boils down to the word of a three-tour decorated veteran versus a young wet-behind-the-ears rookie.

Briggman realizes that out in the field he is at the mercy of his comrades who are all trained killers. Soldiers survive because they know their brothers-in-arms have their backs; when you go out into the field not only uncertain whether your platoon has your back or might just shoot you in yours, it is not a place to be, to say the least. Briggman finds himself at odds with his conscience as well as his survival instinct.

Krauss based this loosely on a documentary that he directed back in 2013 (Florida Film Festival attendees may recall it and for those whose memory needs a jog, you can read my review here). That was a bit more of a morality play, chronicling a family’s encounter with the military justice system as the young soldier fights for the truth with his supportive family behind him. This version is fictionalized and the names are all changed, and the focus here is more on what the soldier endured and how it affected him. None of the film depicts the fall-out from the soldier’s accusations.

The role of Deeks is tailor-made for Skarsgǻrd and he responds with an intense performance. The actor underplays the role, giving the character a whole lot of menace. He certainly holds our attention on-screen. Wolff gives his character the right amount of naivete and gung-ho machismo to make him very relatable. Unfortunately, none of the other characters get much development.

Krauss also proves himself to be adept at building suspense and creating an on-screen tension that will keep audience members on the edge of their seats (or couches, as the case may be). The action sequences are a bit on the low-key side but they are adequate – in a lot of ways, the movie has the feel of a lot of recent war movies dealing with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the moments in the film are truly terrifying and really hit you in the gut. There are enough of these to give the film a solid recommendation, but be warned that not all of the movie is like that and there is an awful lot of SSDD when it comes to modern war films. The Kill Team has been available on DirecTV for about a month and is just now hitting a limited theatrical release as well as being available on most streaming platforms. It’s not a must-see but then again you won’t go too far wrong if you do take a chance on it.

REASONS TO SEE: Truly harrowing in places, building the tension up nicely. Skarsgǻrd is absolutely amazing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The violence is curiously understated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a cornucopia of profanity, war violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skarsgǻrd and Ikhile were both in The Legend of Tarzan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Few Good Men
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness kicks off!

Rampage


George of the Urban Jungle and the Rock try to out-scary face one another.

(2018) Adventure (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Marley Shelton, P.J. Byrne, Demetrius Grosse, Jack Quaid, Breanne Hill, Matt Gerald, Will Yun Lee, Urijah Faber, Bruce Blackshear, Jason Liles, Mat Wells, Stephen Dunleavy, Danny Le Boyer, Alan Boell, Alyssa Brooke. Directed by Brad Peyton

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that when you mess with mother nature it tends to come back and bite you in the ass eventually. That’s a lesson that seems lost on modern corporate America (and the regulatory agencies that are supposed to reign them in but that’s a different story).

When a space station explodes after a lab rat gets loose and tears the crew apart, the pathogen that caused the rat to mutate falls back to Earth, affecting a gator in the Everglades, a wolf in the Minnesota woods – and a gentle albino ape who dwells in the San Diego zoo. The primatologist who is studying George, Davis Okoye (Johnson) is understandably peeved but when government sorts led by the cheerful and shamefully Texan Harvey Russell (Morgan), the Rock’s biceps begin to twitch. When George, like the wolf and the alligator, begins to grow in size to something approaching a Japanese monster movie, behave aggressively and even savagely (they’re animals; who knew?) and for a fairly ludicrous plot reason decide to converge on Chicago and tear the city limb from limb, well the eyebrows arch and the people’s elbow start itching for a fight.

Based on an Atari-era videogame (the console box for which can be seen in the background of the office of the sibling corporate types (Akerman and Lacy) who are behind the pathogen, the movie seemed to have all the elements of a summer blockbuster, particularly Johnson whose easygoing charm and likability have propelled him onto the Hollywood A-list. However, Johnson is essentially on autopilot here. This is far from his finest hour and although he’s not the reason this movie fails to succeed (a painfully cliché script is largely to glame), he certainly doesn’t elevate it either.

Morgan as the federal agent who really wants to be a Texas Ranger and Akerman as a heartless corporate bitch are actually the actors who are the most watchable here. The CGI creations are also pretty nifty. However the mayhem – like many Transformers movies – is so overwhelming it becomes almost too much to take in; the mind becomes numbed to the carnage as buildings fall, helicopters are swatted from the sky and people are eaten like…well, energy pills in a videogame which in the original game, people were.

I’m not against mindless fun but the filmmakers ask us to take an awful lot on faith and after awhile the plot holes become too enormous to overcome. The human characters tend to be more like cartoons than the CGI which I find ironic in an amusing kind of way but I didn’t at the time I was watching this. There were a lot of things that could have been done with this premise to make this film better than it turned out to be but Peyton and perhaps the studio suits went the tried and true safe route and ended up making a cookie cutter movie that is neither satisfying or even more than barely recommendable.

REASONS TO GO: Morgan and Akerman acquit themselves well. The CGI is excellent.
REASONS TO STAY: This movie is dumb as a rock. Most of the characters are straight out of cartoons.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of video game-like violence, destruction and general mayhem. There’s also some brief mild profanity  and some crude gestures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the tepid aggregate score, Rampage is currently the highest-scoring video game adaptation in the history of Rotten Tomatoes.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kong: Skull Island
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Mercury 13

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back


Tom Cruise finds his “make the ketchup bottle disappear” trick didn’t work as well as expected.

Tom Cruise finds his “make the ketchup bottle disappear” trick didn’t work as well as expected.

(2016) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Judd Lombard, Jason Douglas, Madalyn Horcher, Robert Catrini, Anthony Molinari, M. Serrano, Nicole Barre, Jessica Stroup, Sharon E. Smith, Teri Wyble, Sean Boyd, Austin Hébert, Sabrina Gennarino, Ernest Wells, Lizbeth Hutchings. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

Most of us have some sort of moral code. It might not be straight and narrow and it might be more flexible than most, but it’s there. For most of us, there are things that just cannot stand. Then again, there are those whose codes, for better or worse, are about as flexible as the Rock of Gibraltar. Sometimes, that can be a good thing.

Jack Reacher (Cruise) was once in charge of a Military Police investigative unit until he retired from the armed forces. He prefers to live off the grid, moving from place to place and living off his pension which he collects in cash. He hitchhikes to get from place to place. He’s a loner by nature and will never initiate a conversation without reason to, but if you get up in his grill he absolutely will mop the floor with your carcass.

His successor in the unit is the ramrod-tough straight shooter Major Susan Turner (Smulders) on whom Reacher asks a favor from time to time. The two have developed a friendly, semi-flirtatious repartee that doesn’t seem to have much expectation that anything will come of it, but there is clearly mutual respect between the two and Reacher doesn’t respect a whole lot of people. After she arrests a group of human traffickers operating from a military base (and rescuing Reacher from being arrested himself for assault in the bargain), he tells her that he owes her a dinner and she can collect the next time he’s in D.C.

But by the time Reacher gets there, things have turned upside down; Major Turner has been arrested for espionage, something Reacher thinks smells fishy. And the more he talks to her commanding officer (McCallany), the fishier the smell. Pretty soon, he discovers that two of her direct reports in Afghanistan turned up dead. Quickly Reacher’s nose indicates that there’s a nasty little conspiracy going on and that Major Turner – whom he scarcely knows but considers a friend – is not safe in jail. He breaks her out and goes on the run, pursued by – well, everybody including a black-gloved assassin (Heusinger) with no name who might just be Reacher’s equal in hand-to-hand combat.

To further complicate matters, there’s a teenage girl (Yarosh) who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter and because she might be, she’s in the crosshairs of the killers. Whether she’s his progeny or not, he can’t just leave her in the hands of the wolves, so Reacher knows he’s going to have to do what he does best – kick ass and dig until he finds the truth, assuming you can handle it (see what I did there).

The Reacher book series penned by author Lee Child is at 21 books as of this writing and continuing to climb. The series has a fairly rabid fan base, not all of whom are especially pleased over the two films that have been adapted, particularly as the hero is 6’4” in the book, nearly a foot taller than what Cruise is in real life. Short of budget-busting special effects, nothing is going to make Cruise that tall. He is then forced to take up the slack with attitude.

And to a certain extent, it works. Reacher feels dangerous here. Maybe it’s the way he looks at you sideways or the coiled spring tension in Cruise’s body language but you get a sense that rubbing this guy the wrong way would be a bad and potentially fatal idea. I will give Cruise that – he gets the attitude of Reacher right.

But that makes it a bit of a hard sell. Reacher as written isn’t the sharing kind. He’s taciturn, sullen, often hostile. He’s smart in a predatory kind of way. He’s also self-disciplined as you’d expect for an elite military officer but that doesn’t mean he can’t explode into violence when the need arises. It’s the kind of character that Clint Eastwood might have owned a few decades ago, or more recently maybe Schwarzenegger. In many ways, Jack Reacher isn’t much different than a number of action hero loners with faulty social skills and therein lies the rub.

Much of the movie (particularly in the second half) requires Reacher to be something of a father figure and it just comes off…wrong. Reacher is loyal to a fault but that doesn’t make him an ideal family man. The interactions between Reacher and Samantha (said sullen teen whose moral compass is a bit shadier than his) are awkward as they should be, but that ends up making you feel uncomfortable, like listening to Florence Foster Jenkins singing karaoke.

The action sequences are decently staged, although unremarkable in and of themselves. The climactic fight between the assassin and Reacher on the rooftops of the French Quarter (and it must be said that the Big Easy looks pretty great here) is lengthy but it feels predictable. I’m not saying that it’s horrible, it just didn’t wow me. Perhaps I’ve seen too many action movies.

All in all, this is entertaining enough to recommend but not enough to recommend vigorously. I think that a good movie can be made from the Child novels but thus far the movies have been decent but not memorable. They make for some nice time fillers if you’re bored and want to kill a couple of hours, but if you’ve got a yen for an action movie that’s going to leave you breathless with your heart pounding, this isn’t the one to select.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty decent action sequences highlight the film. The filmmakers utilize the New Orleans location nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: For the most part the film is pretty unremarkable. It loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and action movie goodness, a bit of profanity, some adult themes and a couple of bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the eighteenth book in the series; its predecessor was based on the ninth book.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Out for Justice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Denial

The Monuments Men


The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

(2014) War Dramedy (Columbia) George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Justus von Dohnanyi, Holger Handtke, Michael Holland, Zachary Baharov, Michael Brandner, Sam Hazeldine, Miles Jupp, Alexandre Desplat, Diarmaid Murtagh, Grant Heslov, Audrey Marnay. Directed by George Clooney

World War II wasn’t just a fight for freedom; it was also a fight for the soul of Europe. Some of the greatest achievements of mankind were put at risk. There was a small cadre of men who devoted their lives to saving these works of art and architecture near the end of the war – this is their (fictionalized) story.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) is an art historian and the curator of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. He is aware that the Nazis have stolen art from Jewish collectors and museums throughout the territories they conquered in Europe. Most of it is meant for a museum that Hitler is building in his own honor in Austria, although some is being destroyed outright – Hitler, not a fan of modern art, burned hundreds of Picassos, Dalis and other modern artists as kind of the ultimate art critic.

Given the go-ahead by FDR to protect these artists and significant buildings and also to retrieve them and restore them to their rightful owners, Stokes puts together an eclectic collection of middle-aged men who are far from fit for the most part; Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Murray), art restoration expert James Granger (Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (Goodman), a British museum director looking for a second chance Donald Jeffries (Bonneville), theatrical impresario Preston Savitz (Balaban), and Jean-Claude Clermont (Dujardin) a former French painting instructor.

They undergo rigorous physical training that really underscores how out-of-shape they are and head off to France shortly after the invasion of Normandy to begin to track down the stolen art. Claire Simone (Blanchett), a curator at the Louvre in occupied Paris, had watched helplessly as SS officer Viktor Stahl (von Dohnanyi) appropriated pieces for Hermann Goering and for the Hitler museum. She is devastated when he takes everything as the Allies close in on Paris and becomes suspicious of Granger, thinking that the Americans are no better than the Nazis, wanting these priceless works of art only for themselves.

In the meantime, one of the Monuments Men gets to the cathedral at Bruges to protect the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo (the only work of his that left Italy during the great artist’s lifetime) only to die in the attempt. As we might say now, poop gets real, cuz.

Eventually they get wind that the Nazis stored most of the works in castles and mine shafts throughout Germany but an order has gone out signed by Hitler himself that should the Fuehrer die or Germany fall, everything is to be destroyed. Not only that but a Russian contingent is out to find the stolen art also but not to return to its rightful owners, but to keep as war reparations. The nearly impossible task just got a timer put on it.

Clooney takes the many hats of producer, director, co-writer and star and it may be one too many hats. The movie, based largely on Robert M. Edsel’s non-fiction book of the same name, has essentially Hollywoodized the story of the Monuments Men, fictionalizing their characters and some of the events (although much of what happens story-wise is what happened reality-wise but not all). I’m one of those guys who prefers watching a true account of what really happened rather than seeing something that is jazzed up, romanticized and a gloss thrown over it. I guess I’m into history more than mythology.

That said, the entertainment quality is pretty high. When he was the wiseacre from SNL doing comedies like Stripes and Meatballs, who’d have thought that Bill Murray would become one of the best dramatic actors in America? He has done just that however, and he damn near steals the movie, his expressive face showing puzzlement, sorrow and pain when informed of the intended fate of the art. He also has a scene where he gets a Christmas message from his wife and granddaughter that Preston plays over the camp’s Public Address system in which you watch his loneliness and pain come bleeding out – without him changing his expression hardly at all. It’s masterful work.

Sadly, most of the rest of the cast gets little in the way of any sort of background and they seem a little cookie-cutter to me, although the impressive cast does their best to breathe life into them. Blanchett is a great actress but perhaps there could have been a great French actress – a Julie Delpy, a Marion Cotillard, a Juliette Binoche or a Ludivine Sagnier – cast instead. At least we wouldn’t have been as distracted by a French accent that seems more Looney Tunes than authentic.

The film raises the question as to what the importance of art is to a society and of course the answer is “essential.” Art is the soul of any civilization; should that soul be destroyed, so too is the civilization and that was the evil of Hitler; he didn’t only want to wipe the Jews from the face of the Earth, he wanted to wipe European civilization out as well and substitute his own warped version of it. Not everyone in the film agrees with Frank Stokes’ assessment of the importance of the mission of the Monuments Men (heck you might even disagree) but even if you do, the movie is surprisingly entertaining although in the interest of fair and truthful reporting, I slept through about 15 minutes of it early on.

This is the kind of movie they used to make when the War itself was either in full force or had just ended. While it lacks the snappy moxie that directors like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges imbued in their films, it captures much of the same spirit nonetheless.  It’s kind of refreshing to be able to say in this instance, “they do make ’em like that anymore!”

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Murray is amazing here and Goodman and Dujardin not far behind.

REASONS TO STAY: Can’t decide whether to be a drama or a comedy and misses the mark for both.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Some war violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing an older Frank Stokes after the war visiting an important piece rescued by the Monuments Men is in fact George Clooney’s dad Nick. Producer Grant Heslov and composer Alexandre Desplat also make cameos.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Private Ryan

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Winter’s Tale

The Tillman Story


The Tillman Story

The brothers Tillman (Pat and Kevin) in country.

(2010) Documentary (Weinstein) Pat Tillman, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, Patrick Tillman Sr., Marie Tillman, Richard Tillman, Kevin Tillman, Josh Brolin (narrator), Russell Baer, Phil Kensinger, Stan Goff, Jason Parsons, Bryan O’Neal. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

 

It has been said that in times of war, the first casualty is the truth. That is just as true today as when it was first spoken.

Most Americans know who Pat Tillman was; a highly paid star for the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, he left a lucrative career to serve his country as an Army Ranger. He served in Afghanistan only to fall in battle, dead at 27 leaving behind a grieving widow, parents and siblings. The army painted his death as a heroic attempt to save his men during an ambush by the Taliban. At his funeral, the oratory from such personages as Senator John McCain as well as by a parade of army brass bordered on the hysterical in painting a picture of a heroic American who died for a cause he believed in.

But to Dannie Tillman, Pat’s mother, something didn’t smell right. She wanted details about the death of her son and the Army at first was reluctant to provide them. Then, the story changed; it wasn’t a bullet from the Taliban that killed Pat, it was friendly fire – rounds fired by his own fellow soldiers. But how could that happen? What really went on? The more questions Dannie asked, the more frustrating the answers became. The Army finally provided her with the documentation she asked for – 3,000 pages worth, most of it redacted (i.e. heavily censored).

Many women, grieving over their lost sons, would hesitate to read documents detailing the gruesome manner in which their sons died but Dannie persevered. She hired Stan Goff, a former Army investigator and current private detective, to look into the matter. After months and years of being lied to and stonewalled, Pat’s father Patrick Tillman Sr. wrote a scathing and blistering letter which finally prompted a Congressional investigation into the death of Pat Tillman.

What eventually came out was a miasma of cover-ups and an attempt to turn the tragic death of the highest profile soldier in the Army into a propaganda goldmine. Scapegoats were found and those who had the most to do with it – including General Stanley McChrystal  and possibly up to and including then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – got away with it.

Bar-Levi tells the story chronologically, allowing us to discover the extent of the cover-up along with the Tillman family. He wisely allows the facts to speak for themselves and tries not to editorialize much (although the Tillman family does that for him). He is also careful to make the distinction that nobody is criticizing the military as such – just the people who would use the deaths of the soldiers for political gain.

It is easy to get consumed by outrage watching this and as the movie has been out for quite awhile there is no need to be a belated bandwagon-jumper to express my own feelings other than to say “what they said.” As a documentary, this is well-made and just a little bit manipulative; while there can be no justification for what was done, little effort is made to hear opposing sides so be aware of that when watching the film.

Pat Tillman was not a religious man – he has been characterized as an atheist as has his family by detractors which I found profoundly pathetic and a little bit funny in a sad way; I suppose there are those in the military who think the best defense is to go on the attack. It would be nice, however, for the military – even at this late date – to man up and admit what happened and let those who were responsible for lying to the family of a fallen hero be made to answer for their actions.

We all want to believe that our military hold themselves to higher standards. We want to believe that the courageous men and women of the armed forces who put their lives in jeopardy for the sake of the nation have not made that ultimate sacrifice in vain. We want their deaths to mean something. Sadly, there are those who see these human beings as means to an end. That is perhaps the most detestable aspect of this whole senseless affair.

This is a movie that will inflame your passions but at the same time it is advisable to temper that passion with a little bit of forethought; like anything else, there are no absolutes in the military. As it is an institution made up of human beings, there will always be things that happen that are regrettable and even unconscionable. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for the military or their values. It is at times necessary to shine the light on those who misuse their authority. Perhaps the real legacy of Pat Tillman is to remind us that it is at all times necessary for us not to accept things at face value and that the test of a truly free people is the ability to pursue the truth, no matter how painful it might be.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a real sense of fun and looks at a less glamorous side of the business. Hanks and Malkovich make a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie takes it’s time which may not sit well with audiences used to much faster-paced comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck is depicted as appearing on MTV’s TRL show, which had been canceled between the time the movie was filmed and when it was released.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $802,535 on an unreported production budget; it’s possible that the movie made a little bit of money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Friendly Fire

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: In Her Skin

The General’s Daughter


The General's Daughter

Madeline Stowe is tired of being taken to John Travolta's favorite cheap bar whenever they go out on a date.

(1999) Mystery (Paramount) John Travolta, Madeline Stowe, James Woods, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton, Clarence Williams III, Leslie Stefanson, Daniel van Bargen, Peter Weireter, Mark Boone Junior, John Beasley, John Frankenheimer. Directed by Simon West

 

The United States Army is, in many ways, a cult in the eyes of us civilians. Think about it: People dress the same, address civilians with courtesy and respect (for the most part), engage in a life governed by a rigid code of morality and when threatened, protect their own. At least they don’t hand out flowers in airports.

The General’s Daughter looks at that code in a critical manner. Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is a member of the elite Criminal Investigation Division, a branch of the Army that investigates crimes committed on military property and/or by military personnel. He is brought into an investigation when a beautiful female officer (Stefanson) is raped and murdered in a particularly brutal fashion. Another investigator, Sara Sunhill (Stowe) who, as it so happens, used to be intimate with Brenner, is brought in to be a partner with her somewhat reluctant ex.

Also, as it turns out, the beautiful officer is the daughter of the base commander, Gen. Joseph Campbell (Cromwell). Campbell is getting ready to retire from the military, with an eye toward a political career. So the intrigue is sky-high, with a smarmy MP (Hutton), an edgy psych officer (the always-excellent Woods), and a guilty-looking assistant (Williams) lurking about the edges.

At the risk of giving away too much, two elements of the military are under the microscope here: the Army’s attitude towards women and the Army’s attitude towards cover-ups. I can kind of understand the latter; in order to be effective, an armed force must have the respect of not only those who potentially might oppose it but also of those it defends as well. The U.S. Army doesn’t like to appear vulnerable or mistaken. It takes steps to protect its reputation almost as vigorously as it takes steps to protect this nation.

Of course that can lead to several gray areas, morally-speaking. While instances as far out into the gray as The General’s Daughter are extremely rare (although the Navy’s Tailhook scandal comes to mind), the fact is that the potential for these kinds of shenanigans exist. Perhaps that’s why this movie is so effective.

It’s easy to forget sometimes that Travolta is actually a fine actor although he makes a pretty damn fine movie star as well. Here he plays a man walking through a moral minefield and is being forced to choose between what he knows is right and the good of the Army. It’s not an easy choice by any means and through Travolta we can see the character wrestling with his moral dilemma.

He has a spectacular supporting cast; Woods and Cromwell shine, and Stowe, Hutton and Williams are all excellent as well. All of them are among some of the finest actors in the business, now and almost 15 years ago when this was made. Still, this is definitely Travolta’s show and he’s at the top of his game here.

“The General’s Daughter” is not always an easy movie to watch, although as thrillers go, it’s top-notch. The solution is not what I expected, and it made me think long after the lights had come up in the theater. That’s a lot more than you can ask out of most thrillers – heck, most movies.

WHY RENT THIS: An entertaining thriller with unexpected twists. Travolta is in his best form here; he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Portrays the Army in a somewhat negative light. The murder/rape scene may be too disturbing for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a very graphic and disturbing rape and murder scene, some perverse sexuality (as the MPAA so delicately puts it), plenty of strong language and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Fort MacCallum scenes were filmed at Savannah State University in Georgia and at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $149.7M on an estimated $95M production budget; the movie didn’t quite make enough to be profitable during it’s theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Promotion

 

Red Tails


Red Tails

The Tuskegee Airmen, circa 2012.

(2012) War (20th Century Fox) Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Cliff Smith, Rick Phillips, Ne-Yo, Lee Tergesen, Daniela Ruah, Elijah Kelly, Marcus T. Paulk, Andre Royo, Gerald McRaney, Michael B. Jordan. Directed by Anthony Hemingway

 

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of the most inspiring ones to come out of the Second World War. An all-black Air Squadron in the U.S. Army Air Corps (kind of a precursor to the Air Force which didn’t exist at the time), the group encountered prejudice and the prevailing attitude that African-Americans were incapable of learning the complex workings of the fighter planes and were cowardly in nature, certain to turn tail and run in combat. Spurious studies done by the U.S. Army War College apparently supported that myth.

Most people who saw the brilliant HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen will know that the Airmen shattered that myth, posting one of the proudest records of any squadron in the war. They protected the bombers that were dropping the smackdown on Hitler and saved uncountable lives; not just the men in the bombers but the soldiers on the ground as well for whom the war was shortened because the bombers were able to do their work.

It’s high time that the Tuskegee Airmen got a proper treatment on the big screen and George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga, has been trying to do just that since the 1980s. However, studios were reluctant to approve a big-budget movie with an all African-American cast – it seems some battles remain un-won in the struggle.

Unfortunately, the movie that Lucas placed in the hands of first-time feature director Hemingway (who has helmed the justly acclaimed “Treme” series for HBO) falls way short of the mark. I’m not even sure where to begin with it. The script I guess for starters; it’s cliché and full of cut-out characters taken from war movies of bygone times. It’s predictable in the extreme, lacking in either vision or creativity. For whatever reason, Lucas opted to go with a fictional version of the Airmen and these Airmen lack depth and are even worse, uninteresting.

Howard fares best as Maj. Bullard, the squadron commander. He at least has some life in what he does and commands screen attention. Gooding, who was in the HBO version of the story, uses a pipe to distraction, substituting props for creating a genuine character. He sleepwalks through the part, lacking his usual energy.

Lucas is well-known for his dogfight sequences in the Star Wars movies and has said in interviews that the fights in this movie are as close as we’re going to ever come to an Episode VII in that series. If that’s the case, it’s a good thing they cut it off after six. The CGI is not just bad, it’s embarrassing. It never looks very realistic at all; it looks like a ten-year-old videogame.

For some odd reason, it appears that Terence Blanchard, who composed the score, went for a beat-heavy synthesized score rather than something more period-friendly. It’s distracting which is not what you want from a score; it should enhance the film experience, not be noticed for all the wrong reasons.

I can understand wishing to make an action movie based on the exploits of the Airmen; that would expose the squadron to a wider audience, theoretically. That’s admirable, but at least if you’re going to do that, give that wider audience a movie they’re going to want to not only see in theaters but recommend to friends.

There is an elephant in the room about this movie that I guess I’m going to address here. I’m a white critic criticizing a nearly all-African American film. To say that I don’t like the movie doesn’t mean I don’t like the subject, or that I don’t like African-Americans. I have nothing but respect for the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen; I just wish they had a better film that honors those accomplishments.

REASONS TO GO: Howard lends some dignity and restraint.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Poorly acted, amateurish CGI, one of the most annoying film scores ever, a movie-of-the-week plot…the story of the Tuskegee Airmen deserved a better movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of war violence, some of it gruesome and there’s also some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George Lucas has been developing the story since 1988; since studios have not been willing to finance the project, he has put his own money into making the film, almost $100 million for production and marketing.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are bad to mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle at St. Anna

AERIAL COMBAT LOVERS: There are a few scenes in which you get an idea of the chaotic nature of WW2 dogfights.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

TOMORROW: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress