THE OLD GUARD (2020) – Charlize Theron Action Fantasy is Old Hat

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old guard

In THE OLD GUARD (2020), you have Charlize Theron playing the leader of a small band of immortal mercenaries who travel the world in search of missions to do good for humankind.

Sounds pretty cool, right?

I thought so. But sadly it sounds better than it actually is. Yes, even though THE OLD GUARD is getting positive word of mouth and decent critical reviews, I was a bit underwhelmed. Maybe my expectations were too high?

Nah!

Andy (Charlize Theron) has been fighting the good fight for centuries. Yup, she’s an immortal warrior who has been saving the day forever. Literally. Yet, she feels increasingly frustrated because in the here and now the world is worse than ever, and she feels that in spite of all her efforts through the years she has not made a difference.

Presently, she leads a small group of fellow immortals which include Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari),  and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). When they are hired by an ex-CIA operative named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to rescue a group of abducted children in Sudan, they are ambushed, and they discover that Copley had set them up, as evidently he has another agenda, and it has to do with a villain named Merrick (Harry Melling) who is very much interested in learning the secret of this group of heroes’ immortality.

Around the same time, a young U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, Nile (Kiki Layne) is killed, only to come back to life, and the group realizes a new member has emerged, so in addition to fighting Copley and Merrick, they have to find and recruit young Nile, who is not in the least interested in joining this group of heroes.

Oh, and by the way, we also learn that these heroes aren’t really immortal. Come again? See, they just have very long life spans. They can still die. Eventually. They just never know when.

How terribly— inconvenient.

I was excited to watch THE OLD GUARD, mostly because of the presence of Charlize Theron, whose work I enjoy a lot, and also because I thought the film had a very cool premise.

Now, Theron is as good as expected. She’s excellent as Andy, although I didn’t find the role all that interesting. For example, early on she laments that she simply hasn’t made a difference, that the world is worse than ever, yet this angst never becomes a driving force in her personality. And while her choreographed fight scenes are very good, they’re not great. Her action scenes in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) were superior.

But the film’s premise I thought was lacking, and it wasn’t as innovative and exciting as I expected it would be. It’s a rather blah screenplay by Greg Rucka, who also wrote the graphic novel series on which this movie is based. The dialogue is pretty standard and doesn’t rise to the level of an electrifying superhero movie.

The plot also has issues. Their mission isn’t terribly exciting, mostly because it’s not really a mission! When the film opens, and they are sent to rescue abducted children, that mission had promise, but it turns out that was only a set-up. For the rest of the movie, they are only doing two things. One, seeking out Copley and Merrick, and this is only for their own self-preservation, and two, recruiting and training Nile.

Yawn.

It’s a classic example of a film that was made to spawn a series, with the set up for the next film being  now that we’ve assembled this group of heroes let’s send them on an exciting adventure in the next movie! Why not just do that in this movie??? What a terrible waste of time. This happens a lot in these types of movies. SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) was another example.

Merrick is also a pretty ineffective villain. He doesn’t have much of an agenda, and he has zero screen presence.

Actually, none of the characters in this one are all that interesting. It’s a rather dull band of immortal heroes.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood does an okay job. The action sequences are decent but not outstanding. The pacing of the film is also rather slow. The film runs just over two hours and it felt like it.

THE OLD GUARD is a Netflix original, but it is nowhere near as good as a previous Netflix original action movie, EXTRACTION (2020), which had some of the best and most intense action sequences in any movie I’ve seen this year.

The cast didn’t really wow me. Chiwetel Ejiofor, however, does add fine support as Copley, and the character undergoes a transformation in the film which sets him up as a key player in the sequels, and I do believe Netflix is planning to make more of these movies.

And while there are some decent scenes in this one— a sequence on a plane is one of the better ones in the movie, for example— there’s simply not enough of them to lift this flick to the upper echelon of superhero action movies.

It’s also rated R, yet I hardly noticed. I don’t think it earned its rating all that well.

THE OLD GUARD is a film filled with promise. With Charlize Theron leading the way, this group of heroes should be one worth watching and rooting for. Sadly, for most of this film, due largely to a standard and rather unimaginative screenplay, that’s not the case.

Since there is a second film in the works, it looks like we’ll just have to wait for the sequel.

And that’s because THE OLD GUARD is all rather old hat.

—END—

 

 

BECKY (2020) – Violent Thriller About Vengeful Thirteen Year-Old Has Its Moments But Strains Credibility

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If you’re a parent of a middle school girl, or even a teacher of one, you know that generally speaking they can be moody, unpredictable, and often difficult. They can also be a handful.

Which is exactly what some dangerous escaped convicts find out when they commandeer a summer cabin, torture the occupants for information, and find one very angry thirteen year-old girl standing in their way in the new thriller BECKY (2020), a film which reveals what a lot of us already know: even hardened murderous criminals are no match for a spited thirteen year-old!

BECKY opens with parallel stories unfolding at the same time. We see Becky (Lulu Wilson) picked up from school by her dad Jeff (Joel McHale) at the same time we witness Dominick (Kevin James) escape from prison. Becky has been having a very difficult year, as her mother has passed away, and she is not handling it well. To make matters worse, Jeff has brought her to a cabin which holds special memories for her regarding her mom, and he has also invited his new girlfriend Kayla (Amanda Brugel) and her young son Ty (Isaiah Rockcliffe) to spend the weekend with them. And if that’s not enough, Jeff informs Becky that he plans to marry Kayla.

Ouch! Way to alienate your teenage daughter, Dad!

Meanwhile, Dominick and his fellow escaped convicts, including the giant Apex (Robert Maillet) make their way to the cabin— no, not to find refuge from the police, but because for some reason which the movie never makes clear— Dominick had hidden a key there, a key to something he values so much he’s willing to kill for it. Just what that key is for is anyone’s guess because the movie never tells us! Some films can get away with leaving out vital information in a plot, while others cannot. BECKY falls into the latter category.

Anyway, when Dominick and his buddies arrive at the cabin, Becky is off in her private clubhouse in the woods pouting, so when Dominick discovers that the key is gone, and he  starts torturing folks to get them to tell him where it is, she’s saved from this ordeal. And when she returns to see her father tortured, it doesn’t sit well with her. Plus, as fate would have it, she does have the key that Dominick is looking for, and once Dominick learns this, he sends his crew into the woods to capture Becky and get it back.

Easy-peasy. Right? Wrong!

Becky turns out to be quite the handful. And then some!

There were parts about BECKY that I liked, and there were also a lot of parts that I didn’t like. The film definitely enters HOME ALONE territory in its latter half, with young Becky taking on brutal thugs she has no business beating up on, but with a mix of ingenuity and gumption, she does just that. It also helps her cause that these crooks aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. They’re actually kind of dumb, which is good for Becky, but bad for the movie. If these guys were really that deadly, Becky most likely wouldn’t have stood a chance. So as much as I enjoyed watching young Becky kick the living stuffing out of these thugs, it really strained credibility that she did so.

With big bright opening credits, the initial feel of this one was that it was going to be campy. It’s not. It may have been better had it gone the route of high camp. As it stands, it goes down another route entirely, that of a heavy R-rated horror movie with some really gory scenes. The good news is these scenes work. One scene in particular where Becky attacks Dominick by stabbing him in the eye is jolting and effective. Even better, and this is one of the few scenes which leaned toward campiness, when Dominick is writhing in pain, his eye dangling from his face, he begs one of his associates to cut it off, and the guy in a panic grabs a child’s safety scissors and tries using that, which only makes the situation worse.

The violence in BECKY is over the top and bloody. I have no problem with this. The problem I had is as the film goes along, it becomes less and less believable that Becky could be this successful.

One of the best parts about BECKY is Lulu Wilson’s performance in the lead role as Becky. Wilson has had plenty of practice. Wilson is only 15 years old, and yet she already has a solid resume of horror movie/TV shows appearances, as she has starred in the TV series THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018-20), and the horror movies ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), and DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014). She gets to do a lot more here as Becky than in her previous films, as she turns the character into a force to be reckoned with, and when she utters the line “But I want to hurt you. I want to hurt you real bad!” it resonates.

Funny man Kevin James makes his dramatic debut here as Dominick, the killer convict with a swastika tatoo on the back of his head who’s obsessed with finding that all important key which will open— wait. That’s right. We don’t know what it opens. But whatever it is, Dominick sure is obssessed about it. I half expected him to utter, “My precious!” upon seeing it!

I’m not a Kevin James fan. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I haven’t enjoyed one single comedy I’ve seen him star in. He’s actually very good here as Dominick in BECKY. The only problem is, like the rest of the story, it just doesn’t seem believable that Becky would walk all over him the way she does. He proves to be a very ineffective villain.

The rest of the cast is fine. Retired wrestler Robert Maillet was fun to watch as Apex, the super powerful enormous convict with a conscience, as harming children takes its toll on him. His presence also begged the question: why does Dominick need a key anyway? Whatever it opens Apex could probably bust into it himself with his bare hands!

BECKY was directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion. They handle the violent scenes well, and do a nice job setting up the characters and the setting, and it all makes for a rather entertaining movie with the exception of its latter half which becomes less believable.

The same can be said of the screenplay by Nick Morris, Ruckus Skye, and Lane Skye. Compelling thriller at first, but simply not enough effort towards the end to keep it credible. The convicts shouldn’t have been that clueless, and Becky should have had a much more difficult time overcoming these guys.

As it stands, BECKY is a competent thriller that is not as fun as it could have been, as it only dabbles with campy humor, and it tends to lean towards graphic horror, and as such, it is definitely not for the squeamish.

It does successfully capture the persona of an angry thirteen year-old girl, however, and so it can be forgiven somewhat for eventually wading into the waters of a HOME ALONE movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020) – Blake Lively Actioner As Dull As Advertised

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the rhythm section

Sometimes I need to listen to the critics.

THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020), an action thriller starring Blake Lively, opened in theaters back in January to some pretty tepid reviews, but I like Blake Lively, and I enjoyed the film’s trailers, so while I missed it on its first run, I finally decided to catch up with it this weekend.

As I said, I should have listened to those critics. THE RHYTHM SECTION was actually worse than I expected it to be.

Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) is so distraught after her parents and brother are killed in a plane crash that she turns to a life of prostitution and drugs. But when a reporter approaches her with the news that the plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb, and that the news was covered up, and that he knows who was responsible, well, she cleans up her act and decides to train as an assassin to personally bring those responsible for the death of her family to justice. Of course. That’s what anyone would do. Right?

Hardly.

Anyway, Stephanie trains with former MI6 agent Iain Boyd (Jude Law) who tells her she doesn’t have what it takes—cue ROCKY music here— but she sets out to prove him wrong. And she does, and soon she’s travelling all over Europe to assassinite those nasty terrorists.

Okay, there are a lot of things wrong with this movie but the biggest one is the story.  The screenplay by Mark Burnell, based on his novel, just never becomes believable. Why Iain Boyd would ever give Stephanie the time of day is beyond me and never made any sense. Why not just train anyone to be an assassin? The story gives us no reason why Stephanie is particularly suited to become a hired killer, other than her drive to avenge the death of her family. Furthermore, the film puts zero effort into convincing us that Stephanie can become a cold-blooded murderer at the drop of a hat, and that she can morph into a super skilled fighter who would give Jason Bourne a run for his money.

Also, before this, it’s not clearly explained why the reporter seeks out Stephanie in the first place. Why does he reveal the story about the bomb to her? Does he plan to interview her? It’s never made clear what his purpose is, other than to serve as a plot device to have Stephanie learn that her family was murdered.

And since no one knows the true identity of the mastermind behind the bombing, it’s part of Stephanie’s “mission” to learn his identity, and so the film also suffers from not having a villain. There’s no one to root against. Stephanie keeps moving up the food chain with one hit after another, but the main terrorist is unknown until the end of the movie, and even that reveal is disappointing and anticlimactic.

Director Reed Morano doesn’t help matters. Right off the bat the film gets off to a muddled start. It opens in a confusing manner as we see Stephanie closing in on a kill, and then it jumps back in time to show Stephanie enjoying time with her family, but then this turns out to be a flashback within a flashback as suddenly we jump ahead to Stephanie as a prostitute. It all adds up to an opening that did not draw me in. Period.

The characters are also pretty blah. The biggest snooze, unbelievably, is the main character, Stephanie Patrick. I never warmed up to her or really liked her, nor did I ever believe later that she could do the things we saw her doing.

The action scenes are also unimpressive.  I expected this one to play out in similar fashion to ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), but the action scenes in that movie were much more stylized and better executed.  The fight scenes here often seemed slow, the choreography not that exciting.

The soundtrack also didn’t work for me, as the songs chosen to cover key scenes seemed out of place, and the film’s score by Steve Mazzaro was hardly noticeable at all. The one song that does work, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” performed by Sleigh Bells, which was featured heavily in the film’s trailers, doesn’t appear in the movie until just before the end credits. So much for that.

I usually like Blake Lively, but her performance here didn’t really work for me. I never believed that Stephanie became that assassin. Likewise, Jude Law was rather wooden as former MI6 agent and current assassin trainer Iain Boyd. And Sterling K. Brown, usually a very reliable actor, is also subdued here as a former CIA agent also involved in the mix, Mark Cerra. Brown knocked it out of the park as attorney Christopher Darden in the TV series AMERICAN CRIME STORY (2016), and he’s been similarly striking in other movies as well, but not so much here.

Also, there was simply no chemistry between Lively and Law, or between Lively and Brown. Their relationships with each other simply fell flat.

The film did take advantage of its many European locations, so much so at times it resembled a James Bond movie, which is no surprise, since it was produced by Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Incidentally, the rhythm section refers to Boyd’s advice to Stephanie to slow the rhythm of her body, to let her heartbeat be a drum, all in an effort to cool her nerves to make her a successful killer.

I think the filmmakers heeded this advice too literally. The film is slow and cold and really could have used an infusion of energy and oomph!

THE RHYTHM SECTION is an inferior action movie, with few compelling scenes, characters who never come to life, and a story that not only didn’t grab me but never came off as believable.

The only rhythm here was the tap, tap, tap, of my fingers on the arm rest of my chair as I waited for the end credits to roll.

—END—

 

 

 

Movie Lists: SPIKE LEE MOVIES

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spike lee

Welcome back to MOVIE LISTS, the column where we look at— lists pertaining to movies. Duh!

Up today, it’s a look at the career of director Spike Lee, which of course is still going strong, so while this is an incomplete list, it’s still an important one because Spike Lee is an important filmmaker.

Now, I haven’t really seen enough Spike Lee movies to consider myself a true fan, but I’ve generally enjoyed his work, and his most recent movies have spoken to current racial tensions in ways that have really resonated, so Lee has been on my mind lately more than ever. And rightly so. Lee makes movies that make you pay attention.

Okay, here’s a partial list of Spike Lee’s 93 directorial credits:

JOE’S BED-STUY BARBERSHOP: WE CUT HEADS (1983)- Lee’s first directorial credit.

SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986) – Spike Lee’s first legitimate hit, a comedy about a young woman and her three lovers. Well-received by critics upon its initial release. I was fortunate enough to see it when it first came out, as I was in my senior year at Boston University and saw it when it premiered as part of one of my film classes.

In addition to directing and writing the screenplay, Lee also appears in the movie as one of the boyfriends.

SCHOOL DAZE (1988) – Lee’s next film, a comedy/drama/musical about a fraternity pledge at a black college. Starring Laurence Fishburne and a young Giancarlo Esposito who would go on to star in a lot of Lee’s movies.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) – Powerful tale of race relations in Brooklyn. Starring Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and again, Giancarlo Esposito.

MO’ BETTER BLUES (1990) – again directed, written by, and starring Spike Lee, this one is the story of two jazz musicians played by Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes.

JUNGLE FEVER (1991) – Lee’s take on interracial relationships, starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra.

MALCOLM X (1992) – probably my favorite Spike Lee movie. This riveting bio pic of African American leader Malcolm X also features one of my favorite performances by Denzel Washington of all time, in the lead role as Malcolm X.

CROOKLYN (1994) – a look at a black family in Brooklyn in 1973.

CLOCKERS (1995)- crime thriller about drug pushers and cops in Brooklyn, starring Harvey Keitel and Lee regular John Turturro.

GIRL 6 (1996) -comedy/drama about a struggling actress who turns to sex to make money.

GET ON THE BUS (1996) – chronicles a bus ride to Washington D.C. for the Million Man March.

HE GOT GAME (1998)- basketball player drama starring Denzel Washington.

SUMMER OF SAM (1999) -Lee’s take on the Son of Sam murders.

BAMBOOZLED (2000)- comedy drama about a frustrated African American writer who in a fit of frustration comes up with a blackface minstrel show only to see it become a hit.

25TH HOUR (2002) – drama about the last 24 hours of a convicted drug dealer, starring Edward Norton.

INSIDE MAN (2006) – Tense crime drama about negotiations over a hostage situation following a bank robbery, starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster.

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (2008) – World War II drama about a group of black soldiers who get trapped in a village.

RED HOOK SUMMER (2012) – drama about a boy who spends a summer with his deeply religious grandfather.

OLDBOY (2013) – weird action drama, a remake, about a man, played by Josh Brolin, held captive for twenty years who is then suddenly released, and he sets out to find answers to why this happened to him. This one just didn’t work for me.

DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2014) – thriller about a mysterious curse which results in a thirst for blood.

CHI-RAQ (2015) – modern day adaptation of a play by Aristophanes.

BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – the first Spike Lee film since MALCOLM X that I really, really enjoyed. Intriguing from start to finish, it tells the story of a black cop played by John David Washington who infiltrates the KKK but then needs the help of a fellow white cop played by Adam Driver to pull off the ruse. Thought-provokig throughout, it’s actually based on real events.

DA 5 BLOODS (2020)- Lee’s most recent film to date, and his first for Netflix. I actually enjoyed this one even more than BLACKKKLANSMAN, as its story of four black veterans of the Vietnam war who return to Vietnam in 2020 to reclaim the remains of their fallen platoon leader speaks to today’s modern day Black Lives Matter movement with a clarity that is seldom found in the movies. An outstanding movie that really speaks to the plight of the black male in the United States.

And there you have it, a brief, partial list of the movies of Spike Lee, one of the most influential film directors working today.

I hope you enjoyed this MOVIE LISTS column and will join me again next time when we look at another list pertaining to the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

DA 5 BLOODS (2020) – Spike Lee’s Latest A Moving Discourse on Black Lives Matter Told Through A Story About Vietnam

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DA 5 BLOODS (2020), Spike Lee’s latest movie, and his first for Netflix, is must-see viewing, especially in light of current events.

It offers a history and an understanding of Black Lives Matter that argues that the plight of the African American male in the United States has been an issue since the country was first formed, and in spite of various movements to make changes, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, things here in 2020 remain largely the same. And it does it with a story about Vietnam that is straightforward without being preachy. It makes its points without hitting you over the head with them.

DA 5 BLOODS is the story of four Vietnam vets, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clark Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), who return to Vietnam in 2020 to both locate the remains of their fallen Squad Leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and to recover a stash of gold which they had found and buried in the jungle there.

The bulk of the movie is this present-day story, but the film also incorporates flashbacks to show us these five friends—da 5 Bloods— in action in Vietnam. Spike Lee does a couple of creative things with these flashbacks. He didn’t use younger actors or CGI affects to make the four main characters look younger. They appear in these scenes looking as old as they do now. Only Norman, played by Chadwick Boseman, appears young, which serves to accentuate that Norman’s life was cut short and he never got to grow old. I thought this was a bold decision on Lee’s part, as this is hardly ever done, especially with the available CGI technology. It’s a decision that really worked.

The other creative decision Lee made with the flashback sequences is he changes the screen format for them. The movie is in widescreen format, but when the flashbacks occur, the ratio changes and the picture is reduced in size. It’s another neat effect that works.

The screenplay by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee is full of intricacies and works on multiple levels. It hammers its point home that the plight of African Americans in the U.S. has been going on since day one— with references to George Washington owning slaves— and that it continues to this day.

And the main story of the four men returning to Vietnam is a good one, and would have worked well as a straightforward war drama. It’s a really good screenplay. It was originally written by Danny Wilson and Paul De Meo as a story about four white Vietnam veterans, and for a while Oliver Stone was attached to the project. It eventually made its way to Spike Lee, and he and writer Kevin Willmott rewrote the script and changed the story to be about black soldiers instead.

The other subplot is that these four friends have changed over the years, and throughout their journey back into Vietnam they struggle to get along because they have changed so much. Paul, played by Delroy Lindo, is the most interesting character of the four. He suffers from PTSD and is haunted by dreams of Norman, who he idolized. To make matters more complicated, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) also joins the group, against his father’s wishes, but David is worried about his dad and wants to be there to keep an eye on him. Paul also feels guilty because he has never been able to love his son the way he wanted.

To the shock of his friends, Paul is also a Trump supporter, and even wears a MAGA hat! As he explains it, he is sick and tired of the system constantly walking over him and taking from him, and so he wants to blow it all up and vote for someone who hates the system like he does. Delroy Lindo is excellent in the role, and he delivers the best performance in the movie.

Clark Peters as Otis, Norm Lewis as Eddie, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Melvin are also very good, and each of their characters also have their own back stories. And Chadwick Boseman, who of course plays Black Panther in the Marvel movies, and also played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013) is really good here in a limited role as Norman. He’s only in the flashback scenes, but he makes his presence known, and it’s clear why his friends admired him so much. The scene when they finally find his remains is one of the most emotional scenes in the movie.

Jean Reno also shows up as a shadowy French businessman Desroche who is also interested in the gold the men are searching for. Van Veronica Ngo enjoys some chilling scenes as Hanoi Hannah. And Melanie Thierry is very good as Hedy, a French expert on land mine diffusion who David meets in a bar and who later becomes an integral part of the storyline.

DA 5 BLOODS doesn’t skimp on the war violence either. There are some gruesome scenes, especially toward the end.

There are also plenty of emotional scenes and poignant ones, including the sequence where Otis visits an old girlfriend, and Paul and David’s father/son interactions.

There are all kinds of memorable exchanges, like when Paul calls his friends the N-word, and they take offense. There’s conversatons about drug abuse, alcohol, guns, and other hot button topics. The script even throws in an Easter Egg to one of Lee’s favorite movies, THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (1948), as one of the characters utters the film’s most famous line.

All in all, DA 5 BLOODS is one of Spike Lee’s best movies. I actually enjoyed it a bit more than his previous film, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), which was also an excellent movie and was a Best Picture Nominee. I thought DA 5 BLOODS was a more ambitious movie and a bit grander in scope. That being said, it’s a bit long, clocking in at two hours and thirty four minutes, and I thought it dragged somewhat during its second half.

But it’s still one of Lee’s best.

It convincingly defends Black Lives Matter and explains why this movement is so important, because nothing has changed for over two hundred years. And while the film offers a conclusion of hope borne from tragedy and violent bloodshed, it does so with one eye on the future that perhaps at long last this is indeed the moment of change people have been waiting for, but also with another eye firmly set on the past as a reminder that we’ve had these moments before and they haven’t changed a thing.

DA 5 BLOODS is a movie about friendship, bloodshed, and sacrifice. It travels between the 1960s and 2020 effortlessly, offering looks at two key volatile periods in the history of race relations, offering a vision that perhaps this time the change is permanent and real.

—END—

 

THE LOVEBIRDS (2020) – Romantic Comedy Offers Some Light Diversion

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the lovebirds

Movie comedies are in a major slump.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw a new movie that made you laugh so hard you couldn’t stop? There haven’t been all that many recently. Which is too bad, because we can always use a good laugh, especially in the here and now.

I wish I could say today’s movie, THE LOVEBIRDS (2020), bucked that trend and had me laughing throughout, but that’s not the case. That being said, this silly romantic comedy about a couple who seconds after deciding to break up become involved in a murder that sends them fleeing from the police and searching for the real killer has its moments, and as such, is for the most part a pleasant diversion from current real world woes.

THE LOVEBIRDS opens with the first date between Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) and then leaps forward several years in time to the point where these two lovebirds are on the brink of breaking up. In fact, while in their car on their way to a party they do break up, and at that very moment, they strike a bicyclist with their vehicle. When they run out to see if the man is okay, he gets back on his bike and pedals away in a panic.

Stunned and shocked, they attempt to process what just happened, but they barely have time to do this when a man (Paul Sparks) arrives on the scene claiming to be a police officer. He commandeers their car with them inside and tells them the man on the bike is a dangerous criminal. They give chase, and when they finally catch up to the bicyclist the “police officer” who’s behind the wheel runs him down, and then runs him over several more times until he’s very dead. As he gets out of the car to check on the body, Jibran tells Leilani, “I don’t think he’s a cop.”

What follows is a comedic tale in which Jibran and Leilani work hard to elude both the police and the man, who they refer to as Moustache, as they attempt to find out why Moustache wanted to kill the bicyclist. If they find out why and can prove it, they can go to the police with a real story rather than the flimsy one they have now, with little or no reason why they fled a crime scene other than they were afraid.

THE LOVEBIRDS is a mixed bag. The two leads, Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, do work well together, and by far, the funniest parts of the movie are their interactions with each other. The screenplay by Brendan Gall and Aaron Abrams gets this part right. In fact, the opening date sequence had me both laughing out loud and really enjoying these two characters as they got to know each other and fell in love. And this part of the movie remains consistent throughout. Rae and Nanjiani are both funny and enjoyable to watch from beginning to end.

The problem is the rest of the movie isn’t as strong. The plot never becomes as zany or as madcap as it needs to be. Most of the predicaments Leilani and Jibran find themselves in either fall flat or never push the envelope as far as they should. For example, in one scene, as they are held prisoner, they are given a choice, either hot bacon grease to the face or the unknown threat behind the door. Jibran chooses the door, and finds himself facing the back end of a horse. He actually says what the audience is fearing and expecting, but what happens is anticlimactic. This happens throughout the movie.

I almost wish this one had been a straight romantic comedy without the silly crime plot because Rae and Nanjiani really do work well together. In this case, they have to because they pretty much are the entire movie. Which is another problem with THE LOVEBIRDS. Movies like this really need some quirky supporting characters to keep the comedy moving, but this film doesn’t have any.

The only other memorable character is Moustache, and Paul Sparks plays it straight. He’s simply a menacing bad guy, but he’s not in the movie enough to have an impact. Moustache is also not developed at all. That being said, Paul Sparks does a nice job with what little he has to work with, which is no surprise, because he’s a really good actor. He’s been memorable on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS (2015-18) and as a rather nasty critic James Gordon Bennett in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017).

Issa Rae is excellent as Leilani, as is Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran, and they really do succeed in making these characters seem like a real couple. They’re funny throughout, and even when the situations they find themselves in simply aren’t as comical as expected, they still manage to garner a chuckle with a one-liner here and there. My favorite Kumail Nanjiani movie remains THE BIG SICK (2017). THE LOVEBIRDS is on par with his silly buddy comedy STUBER (2019) in which he co-starred with Dave Bautista.

There’s a conversation in a restaurant between Leilani and Jibran after they have fled the scene of the crime in which they discuss their options. and they agree they can’t go to the police since they are both nonwhite and fear the police would shoot first and ask questions later. This conversation reminded me of a similar moment in the dark drama QUEEN AND SLIM (2019), a movie about a black couple who flee a crime scene and go on to become an unintentional “black Bonnie and Clyde.” While its heart was in the right place, a lot of QUEEN AND SLIM simply didn’t work as well as it should have. Here, THE LOVEBIRDS attempts to be a lighthearted version of the same predicament, although race relations and police brutality, while a central theme in QUEEN AND SLIM, is barely mentioned here, although it is the reason the two main characters fear going to the police.

Two very different movies, two very similar scenes, and one very present and timely theme.

THE LOVEBIRDS was directed by Michael Showalter, who also directed Kumail Nanjiani in the far superior THE BIG SICK. In THE LOVEBIRDS, Showalter succeeds in bringing the two main characters to life. You will really route for Leilani and Jibran to survive their ordeal and get back together by the movie’s end. But he stumbles somewhat with the rest of the story. The predicaments are never as nutty or as energetic as they could be, and supporting characters who could add to the absurdity are nowhere to be found.

THE LOVEBIRDS works much better as a romantic comedy than an action comedy, because the relationship beween Leilani and Jibran is sincere throughout, while the action sequences are simply not very silly.

THE LOVEBIRDS is good for some light diversion, and it’s generally a fun experience, as long as you’re not looking to laugh your butt off for 90 minutes. Yep, at last check, my butt is still there.

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THE DECLINE (2020) – Solid Thriller Speaks to Current Uncertain Times

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In order to live you have to survive.

That’s the mantra of Alain (Real Bosse), a survivalist and the main character in THE DECLINE (2020), a new thriller about a group of folks training at an expansive compound deep in the Canadian wilderness in order to prepare for the end of the world. All goes well until a mishap sends them reeling, and suddenly all their training falls by the wayside when the disaster they’d been preparing for unexpectedly happens within their ranks.

THE DECLINE opens with Antoine (Guillaume Laurin) training with his wife and daughter as they run drills and prepare food to last for years as they expect society as we know it to end in the not so distant future. They heed the advice of a survivalist guru named Alain as they watch his videos online. When Alain invites Antoine to join him at his compound, Antoine is happy to oblige.

Once there, Antoine meets a small group of other survivalists, all there to receive extensive training from Alain. For a while, life is good, as they are all satisfied with Alain’s training, but when an accident occurs claiming the life of one of their own, panic ensues over just how to deal with a death at the compound, a panic that immediately tests everything they had been preparing for.

THE DECLINE is a Netflix original movie, and the first Netflix Quebec collaboration. As such, it’s a French language production. Strangely, Netflix chose to dub the film in English, which detracts from the authenticity of the film. I would have preferred the original French language with English subtitles. But this is about the only thing about this one that I didn’t like.

THE DECLINE is a lean and mean movie, clocking in at a brief 83 minutes. The first half is compelling, while the second is increasingly violent and suspenseful.

Director Patrice Laliberte captures the sense of place with all encompassing shots of Alain’s massive compound deep in the frigid Canadian wilderness, surrounded by snowy hills and icy rivers. And during the second half of the movie, as the group splinters into two sides, the violence intensifies, and the climactic scuffle between two key characters is downright brutal.

Laliberte co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Dionne and Nicholas Krief, and it’s a smart one. The characters in this movie are not preparing for a zombie apocalypse or an otherwise cliche scenario. They are worried about the collapse of society, from either a pandemic, a worldwide economic collapse, or from global warming. Their fears, especially here in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, seem alarmingly real.

Their training really is about keeping it together when the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, and being prepared so they can survive afterwards, which makes what happens in this movie all the more prescient. When an accident claims the life of one of their own, they panic, and they are unable to keep it together. While Alain begs them to do just that, keep it together and rely on their training, most of the folks there refuse, as human nature takes over. Sometimes human decency trumps survivalist training.

It’s an all Canadian cast, and they acquit themselves well. Real Bosse plays survivalist master Alain with a mix of traits. On the one hand, he’s all in with the deep survivalist mantra, sounding paranoid at times, but he mixes in enough softspoken common sense and caring that he frequently sounds like a pretty normal guy. But there’s also an undercurrent of unhingedness that keeps the audience unsettled. At the end of the day, though, Alain is simply a man who believes that one must be prepared for the inevitable collapse that is coming sooner than later.

Guillaume Laurin plays Antoine, the man who also intends to bring his family to the compound when the time is right. Antoine is the character who the audience will most indentify with, the family man, who cares for his wife and daughter, which is why he’s doing all this. Laurin is very good in the role.

Probably my favorite performance in the film belongs to Marie-Evelyne Lessard, who plays Rachel, a former soldier who left the military for reasons she doesn’t like to talk about. She’s the most bad-ass character in the movie, and as the story goes along, her role grows, and she’s involved in some of the best scenes in the film. Lessard is excellent here.

I really liked THE DECLINE. Its survivalist end-of-life-as-we-know-it theme has more relevance today than ever. I also enjoyed that it did not play like a Hollywood production. The script isn’t campy, it’s not full of one-liners, and it doesn’t attempt to be anything that it’s not. It’s simply a story about a group of survivalists who believe they are training for the inevitable, and when things go awry, the reactions of everyone involved are natural and real.

The violence, while not overly gratuitous, is brutal and realistic. The final fight scene in particular is a nail-biter.

THE DECLINE is a well-made thriller that has a down-to-earth no frills script and features solid acting throughout. It’s a film that speaks to the uncertain times in which we live, and provides an answer as to how people will react to adversity and tragedy whether they’re part of society or not.

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EXTRACTION (2020) – Netflix Original Best Action Movie In Years

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EXTRACTION (2020), a Netflix original action flick starring Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, premiered last week on the ubiquitous streaming service with a ton of hype and promotion. In fact, the film’s ads definitely had the feel of a theatrical release.

Does this actioner by a first time director known for his stunt work on the Marvel superhero movies live up to the advertising?

The answer is a resounding yes! Not only is EXTRACTION one of the best Netflix-made action movies yet— I enjoyed it much more than last year’s TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019), for example, but it’s also one of the best action movies I’ve seen in a while. Period.

It’s the best non-superhero action movie I’ve seen in years.

EXTRACTION takes place in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the most powerful drug lord of the land kidnaps the young son of a rival drug lord, who happens to be in prison. This rival drug lord tells his right hand man, Saju (Randeep Hooda) that if he doesn’t rescue his son, his own son will die. Saju knows he can’t do the job on his own, so hires a group of mercenaries to do the job for him, all the while knowing he can’t afford their price, and so from the  get-go he’s planning to double cross them.

The mercenaries are led on the ground by Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth), a fearless soldier haunted by some personal demons from his past. Nevertheless, Tyler is very good at what he does. He’d give Rambo a run for his money. And he does successfully find the boy, Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) but extracting him from Dhaka proves difficult, because the all-powerful drug lord Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli) shuts down the city, and since Saju has double-crossed the team, Tyler is surrounded on all sides with little hope of getting the boy out of Dhaka.

But Tyler has no intention of letting the boy die on his watch.

The best part about EXTRACTION are its action scenes. The action sequences here are second to none. These are hard-hitting violent R-rated fight scenes, and they are shot exceedingly well, including one very long sequence done in a single take, reminiscent of a similar sequence in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017).

The fact that these sequences are so expertly handled comes as no surprise since director Sam Hargrave worked as a stunt coordinator and second unit director on many of the Marvel superhero movies. His expertise is on full display here. It’s an exceptional directorial debut. The camera gets in close to the action, and things happen with such speed you really feel like you are right there in the middle of the combat with the actors.

Hargrave worked as Chris Evans’ stunt double in the CAPTAIN AMERICA and AVENGERS movies. He was the stunt coordinator on CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) and AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), as well as the aforementioned ATOMIC BLONDE. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He has 80 stunt credits going back to 2005. He was also the second unit director on ATOMIC BLONDE and AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

And these action sequences had better be good because the film is almost nonstop action. The first hour is an incredible fight-filled thrill ride. It’s relentless. Things slow down midway so the audience can catch its breath, before picking up again for an intense conclusion. Action fans will not be disappointed.

Nor will fans of good storytelling. The screenplay Joe Russo, based on the graphic novel “Ciudad”by Ande Parks, tells a riveting story that never lets up. Chris Hemsworth’s Tyler Rake is a likeable character, in spite of the bloody path he carves out, and his mission here, to rescue a young boy, even when his superiors tell him to cut his losses and leave the boy behind, is an admirable one. The dialogue is also first-rate.

It’s an excellent screenplay by Russo, who of course is known as a director, as he directed CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

So, yes there’s a big Marvel connection here, solidified even more with the presence of Chris Hemsworth in the lead role. It’s an outstanding performance by Hemsworth. I liked him here every bit as much as I’ve enjoyed watching him play Thor in the Marvel movies.

Randeep Hooda is also excellent as Saju, an ex-special forces soldier who finds himself having to double cross a team of deadly mercenaries pitting him against Rake and rival drug lords in order to protect his own son. The fight scenes between Hooda and Hemsworth are some of the best in the movie.  Had this movie been made back in the 1980s, you could easily imagine Schwarzenegger and Stallone in these roles.

Priyanshu Painyuli makes for a surprisingly suave drug lord Amir Asif, and Golshifteh Farahani stands out as the sexy yet ice-cold coordinator of Tyler’s team, Nik Khan.

And David Harbour who plays Police Chief Jim Hopper on STRANGER THINGS (2016-present) shows up midway through as an old friend who steps up to give Tyler and the boy safe— eh hem—harbor.

I really liked EXTRACTION. It’s one of the best action movies I’ve seen in years, with some of the most exhilarating action sequences ever put on film. It’s that good.

The only drawback is I wished I had seen this one on the big screen. In IMAX. It’s worthy of that kind of viewing.

With EXTRACTION, Sam Hargrave has put himself on the map as a premier action movie director, while Chris Hemsworth has solidified his standing as a truly bona fide action star.

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WORST MOVIES 2019

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Here’s a look at my picks for the Ten Worst Movies of 2019:

10. PET SEMATARY

Coming in at #10 it’s PET SEMATARY, which is both an inferior remake of the 1989 movie and a pretty tepid take on one of Stephen King’s scariest novels. The changes made to King’s story here have potential but sadly the filmmakers do little with them. And as much as I like John Lithgow as an actor, he did not make me forget Fred Gwynne’s memorable performance as Jud Crandall in the 1989 film.

9. THE DEAD DON’T DIE

Fans of writer/director Jim Jarmusch seemed to really like this one, but for me, this zombie comedy just didn’t work. For starters, it had no sense of the genre, as its zombie/horror elements were weak and uninspired. In spite of an impressive cast which included Bill Murray and Adam Driver in lead roles, the deadpan breaking-the-fourth-wall humor I found obvious and mundane.

THE DEAD DON'T DIE

8. THE PRODIGY

One of the more forgettable horror movies of 2019. Another evil child chiller that offers nothing new.

7. ISN’T IT ROMANTIC

No. It isn’t. It’s not even that funny. This rom com starring Rebel Wilson as a cynical romantic who suddenly finds herself living in a romantic comedy can’t seem to move beyond its clever gimmick. While some of the humor works, most of it doesn’t, making for a lukewarm entry in the rom com genre.

6. IT CHAPTER TWO

This long, overblown, and slow-moving horror “epic” which clocks in at two hours and forty-nine minutes would have struggled to be scary even in half the time. Simply put, the main characters here were far more interesting when they were children, which is why part one of this flick was more entertaining. A waste of a good cast, as even the presence of James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain can’t save this one. Even worse than the incredibly long running time is how not scary Pennywise is in this movie. Based on Stephen King’s novel.

5. RAMBO: LAST BLOOD

Bottom of the barrel entry in the RAMBO series, this uninspired revenge flick is just that: Rambo exacts vengeance on thugs who abducted his niece. The ridiculous ending seems to be inspired by HOME ALONE (1990). The film makes no effort to lend credibility to the idea that Rambo at his advanced age could take down a gang of violent drug heavies singlehandedly.

rambo last blood stallone

4. ANNABELLE COMES HOME

Another awful horror movie from 2019.  In spite of the fact that Annabelle is one creepy doll, filmmakers continue to struggle to write worthwhile stories about her. This one wastes the talents of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, who show up only for the beginning and end. Someone should lock Annabelle in her glass case and throw away the key. The series just isn’t very good.

annabelle comes home

3. THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA

My pick for the worst horror movie of 2019. No surprise, this one also takes place in THE CONJURING/ANNABELLE universe, which simply put, is not the universe you want your horror movie to appear in. I loved the original THE CONJURING (2013). The ensuing movies just haven’t been very good. Here, we have a demon that preys on children, and a priest who does battle against it in scenes that are laughably bad.

2. COLD PURSUIT-

The Liam Neeson actioner may have worn out its welcome with this movie, in which Neeson plays a snowplow driver who seeks vengeance against the thugs who murdered his son. Blah, blah, blah. Been there. Done that. This one also makes some bizarre attempts at humor, with some over the top superimposed captions following each character’s violent demise. My least favorite Liam Neeson movie in quite some time.

1. THE LIGHTHOUSE

Yeah, I know. For some folks, this was their pick for the best movie of the year. And yes, I can’t take anything away from writer/director Robert Eggers’ masterful black and white cinematography. This might be the best made movie I’ve ever loathed so much. Photography looks awesome, but this tale of two lighthouse keepers, played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, who become stranded there together for an extended period of time, and hence have to deal with each other, is a story of boredom and madness, and for me, it provoked just that. I wasn’t interested in either character, and watching them simply deal with each other over the course of this film was a maddening experience that left me completely bored. Story matters. Magnificent cinematography on its own does not a movie make. I often judge a movie by how soon I’d want to see it again. I never want to see THE LIGHTHOUSE again.

the lighthouse

Hence, it’s my pick for the worst movie of 2019.

And there you have it, my picks for the worst films of 2019.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

Dark Corners cover (1)

Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1917 (2019) – World War I Drama Cinematic But Rarely Moving

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1917 (2019), the new World War I drama by director Sam Mendes, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is at times cinematic and suspenseful, and at others brutal and shocking, but strangely it’s rarely moving.

In short, it’s not going to do for World War I trench warfare what SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) did for the World War II D-Day invasion at Normandy.

1917 wastes no time getting started. Within the first few minutes of the movie, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) learn that they’ve been selected for a very dangerous mission. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) informs them that the battalion of soldiers on their way to engage the Germans are about to enter a trap. With phone lines cut, they have no way of warning them, so Blake and Schofield have been charged with racing across the front lines into no man’s land to cross into enemy territory in order to give the troops orders to stop their advance, since they mistakenly believe the Germans are on the run.

Blake has been chosen because he’s an expert with maps and will be able to navigate through the tricky enemy territory.  And only two men are being sent to avoid detection. To make matters more complicated, Blake’s older brother is in the battalion that’s about to fall into the trap.

The movie then follows Blake and Schofield on their nearly impossible task of making their way through the trenches to warn their fellow soldiers in time.

Director Mendes filmed 1917 to appear as if it was filmed in one long shot, and for a while, especially early on, it heightens the effect of the movie. Honestly, later in the movie, I simply didn’t notice as much.

Like Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK (2016) at times there’s not a lot of dialogue, as there’s mostly running and trudging through mud, and what little dialogue there is doesn’t always resonate.

The cinematography is impressive, and there are certainly some major cinematic moments, especially approaching the film’s climax. There are also some shocking scenes, although nothing as brutal as what was depicted in Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

The best part of 1917 is the way it depicts trench warfare. You can almost smell the mud and the decomposing bodies. Mud is everywhere, as are corpses. One scene involves some particularly nasty looking bloated bodies floating in a river. It really captures the sense of how draining and how worn down the soldiers were from the unending horrors of it all.

The screenplay by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is decent enough, although the writing is nowhere near as sharp as the cinematography. The dialogue just isn’t all that moving, nor are the characters. In fact, I didn’t really feel an emotional connection to the proceedings until the final reel.

Both Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are very good in the lead roles. They have to be. They’re in most of the movie. Everyone else is secondary. And heavy hitters like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong appear in nothing more than cameos.

While I definitely enjoyed 1917, it didn’t wow me completely. Visually, it’s striking, as the images throughout the film are potent and sometimes haunting. But the dialogue and the characters weren’t quite up to snuff.

1917 is an above average World War I drama. It gives you a thorough understanding and appreciation for what trench warfare was like.

It also has some things to say for present day audiences. In today’s world, where we seem to be at war nonstop, its message of soldiers wondering what they’re fighting for, and wishing just to get back home, says something of the importance of war as a last resort, as opposed to war as the first choice of world leaders.

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