THEIR FINEST (2017) – World War II Comedy Romance is Movie Making at its Finest

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Their Finest poster

Even though THEIR FINEST (2017) is mostly a comedy romance about the making of a propaganda movie about Dunkirk, what it does best as a World War II period piece is capture what life was like in Great Britain during the war, when men of age were off fighting, and left to pick up the slack at home were women, the elderly, and the injured.

It’s certainly the film’s strongest attribute.

It’s 1940, and the Nazis are bombing England relentlessly.  In this harsh environment, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) shares an apartment with her struggling artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston).  Catrin lands a new job as a scriptwriter for a studio that makes propaganda movies for the war effort.  She’s hired to assist screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) with her specific duties being to write female dialogue.

The studio decides to do a movie on the Dunkirk rescue, and they base it on the story of twin sisters who took their father’s boat without his permission in order to rescue British soldiers.  Aging has-been actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) is hired to play the role of the drunken father, in the film changed to a buffoonish drunken uncle.  At first, Hilliard is not interested but eventually changes his mind when he’s reminded by his agent Sophie (Helen McCrory) that he’s no longer a young leading man and needs to take advantage of the roles now being offered him to keep his career alive.

When the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons) informs them that Churchill plans to use their film as a tool to inspire Americans to join the war effort, the film takes on a whole new meaning and suddenly it becomes a major production.

I really enjoyed THEIR FINEST.  It’s full of fine acting performances, features spirited direction by Danish director Lone Scherfig, and has a literate script by Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel Their Finest Hour by Lissa Evans.

Gemma Arterton is wonderful as Catrin Cole. She plays Catrin as an independent intelligent woman who’s not afraid to ask for more money for her work when she knows she has to support her artist husband.  Arterton enjoys nice chemistry with Sam Claflin who plays fellow writer Tom Buckley.  Catrin and Tom grow closer together, even though Catrin tries her best to ignore her feelings since she’s married, but eventually fate intervenes.

Arterton has appeared in a wide variety of roles, but of the movies I’ve seen her in previously, QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (2013), and RUNNER RUNNER (2013) this is by far the best role I’ve seen her play.  She’s smart, sincere, and sexy.

Sam Claflin also does a nice job as fellow writer Tom Buckley, who recognizes Catrin’s talent and eventually falls in love with her. Claflin played the young filmmaker in the underrated Hammer thriller THE QUIET ONES (2014).  Claflin has also appeared in THE HUNGER GAMES movies, THE HUNTSMAN films, and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN:  ON STRANGER TIDES (2011).

And Bill Nighy delivers a scene-stealing performance as aged actor Ambrose Hilliard who is so full of himself that when he first reads the script for the Dunkirk movie he believes he’s being offered the role of the young hero, not the drunken uncle. Nighy gets the best lines in the film, and he also enjoys some of its best scenes.

In a movie-within-a-movie scene, where Catrin rewrites the uncle as a more heroic character, Nighy plays the uncle’s dying moment on the boat.  He hallucinates and thinks the two soldiers with him are his sons, who were lost in the previous war, World War I.  It’s a brilliant moment.  The scene works in the fictional movie, and it works in the main film because Nighy nails Hilliard’s delivering the performance of his life.

And the most poignant moment in the film comes near the end, after Catrin has endured tragedy, and it’s Hilliard who’s there by her side to keep her from falling, and he tells her that they only have these opportunities because the young men are all at war, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t take full advantage of these opportunities, which sums up the main theme of the movie.

Jack Huston is also very good as Catrin’s husband Tom, struggling with both his artistic career and sense of worth since an injury has kept him from fighting in the war.

Helen McCrory stands out as Sophie Smith, whose husband was Hilliard’s agent until he was killed by a Nazi bomb.  Sophie decides to take over her husband’s practice, and once she does, Hilliard’s career never looks back.  It’s a very strong performance by McCrory, and like Arterton and Claflin, she shares nice onscreen chemistry with Bill Nighy.

Likewise, Jake Lacy is memorable as Carl Lundbeck, an American war hero who is added to the cast to make the film more appealing to Americans, which causes some headaches as well as some comic relief because he has no acting experience whatsoever.  Lacy ‘s performance reminded me of something a young Christopher Reeve might have done.

The rest of the cast is solid and enjoyable.  There’s not a weak link to be found.

I loved the script by Gaby Chiappe. It works on several levels.  The most fun and rewarding level is the film within a film concept, and by far the liveliest scenes are the behind the scenes workings of the writers and film crew trying to get this film off the ground.  And the finished product, a Technicolor production entitled THE NANCY STARLING, which we catch glimpses of as Catrin sits in an audience of enthusiastic filmgoers, generates lots of emotion.

The movie also works as a wartime romance, as well as a World War II period piece drama. And just when I wasn’t so sure the romance part was working, the film delivers a menacing blow and at that point reaches a whole other level.

I also enjoyed the direction by Lone Scherfig.  The film looks great, and she captures the period of World War II England, bombed on a regular basis, perfectly.

There’s even a nod to Alfred Hitchcock..

The title, THEIR FINEST, comes from a speech by Winston Churchill, where he described England’s resistance to the Nazis as “their finest hour.”

THEIR FINEST is a wonderful movie.  In addition to being a love story and a comedy, it’s also a thoughtful and poignant look at the role women played in England during the war.

It’s movie making at its finest.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

 

 

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) – Threadbare Characters Hinder Visually Exciting Tale

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rogue-one-poster

There’s been more hype surrounding ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY (2016) than a Cantina Band galactic tour.

I have a bad feeling about this.

ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY is the first stand alone STAR WARS movie, which means it’s the first film in the series not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing tale of how the rebels stole those Death Star plans which they used to blow up the massive weapon at the end of the original STAR WARS movie.  It also provides information to dispel that old joke about how stupid the Empire must have been to leave so fatal a flaw in their Death Star plans.  We learn in this movie that the flaw was no accident.

Since this is stand alone movie, it is chock full of new characters, and the film spends very little time introducing them, so hold onto your hats.  There are plenty of new faces here.  Here we go:

In the opening moments of ROGUE ONE, we see Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) coerced by main baddie Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work for the Empire, a coercion that includes the murder of Galen’s wife, and the attempted abduction of his young daughter Jyn, but the girl escapes and is eventually rescued by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

The action jumps to several  years later where we meet the adult Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and we find her briefly in a prison cell before she is rescued by the rebel forces.  Back at the rebel base, the rebel leaders are very interested in Jyn’s father, since supposedly he has helped the Empire design and build their new ultimate weapon, the Death Star.

But what the rebels want Jyn to do is find her old friend Saw Gerrera because Saw’s forces have apprehended a pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has information vital to the rebellion.  In return for her help, the rebels promise Jyn her freedom.

Leading the mission is pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), but before they leave, we’re privy to Cassian’s private instuctions from the rebel leaders, which is to find and kill their targets, including Jin’s father.  On Saw’s planet, they are assisted by a blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) who worships the Force and seems to wish he were a Jedi, and his friend Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang).

Once they find Saw, he privately shows Jyn a holographic message from her father where he explains that he purposely built a flaw into the Death Star plans, which if exploited, could destroy the entire weapon.  One explosion in the right place would set off a series of blasts that would destroy the Death Star.

Of course, the rebels don’t trust Jyn’s father and so they don’t believe the message. However, Cassian believes in Jin, and along with a small group of rebels, including K-2SO, Chirrut, Baze, and the rescued pilot Bodhi,  offers to help her seek out and steal those Death Star plans.  They name their ship Rogue One and head off on their own to steal the plans.

I had mixed feelings about ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY.  For me, this movie took forever to get going before ultimately reaching a very satisfying conclusion.  If it were a weather forecast, it would be like a sunny day  without a cloud in the sky before suddenly and quickly becoming very stormy, and before you know it you’re stuck in a full blown deadly hurricane.  ROGUE ONE plays out like that.  For two thirds of this movie, I wasn’t overly impressed, and then just around the time where they name their mission “Rogue One” things pick up and pick up fast.  The last third of this film is really good and goes to some dark places that work very well.  While I wasn’t nuts about the beginning, I liked the ending to this one A LOT.

The biggest problem I had with the beginning was a lack of character development.  We meet a bunch of new characters, but I didn’t feel I knew much of anything about them. I just wasn’t invested in what was going on.  I don’t think the movie did a good job creating these characters at all.  In fact, dare I say it?  But during the first half of this movie, I was kinda bored.  I was enjoying the visual aspects of the film, but the story was putting me to sleep.

But then the ending gets much better and actually forgets that it’s supposed to be a kid-friendly STAR WARS movie and becomes a much more adult story about war, and the film is much better for this switch in tone.

Another thing I didn’t like about ROGUE ONE was its villains.  The main villain here was Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and I wasn’t impressed with him at all.  I found him very dull and boring.

Even the presence of Darth Vader (voiced once again by James Earl Jones and sadly sounding noticeably older) in a few scenes doesn’t really help things all that much.  Of course, the big news here is the return of Grand Moff Tarkin, a combination CGI creation and motion capture performance using actor Guy Henry combined with CGI effects to recreate Peter Cushing’s original appearance from the 1977 movie.

Initial word of mouth had been singing high praises about this effect, but I wasn’t all that impressed, honestly.  Maybe it’s because I’m such a huge Peter Cushing fan.  I mean, Tarkin here certainly resembles Peter Cushing, but he also resembles an animated Peter Cushing.  Plus the voice was wrong.  If you’re going to go to such great lengths to make the character look like Cushing, shouldn’t you go the distance and make him sound like Cushing?  Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but I wasn’t all that impressed by this CGI Tarkin.

I also wasn’t that interested in the power struggle here between Tarkin and Orson Krennic. I couldn’t care less that the two of them didn’t like each other and were vying for superiority over the other.  We already know who’s manning the Death Star in STAR WARS so this storyline did nothing for me.

The performances were fine, but for most of this movie I didn’t really get to know these characters all that well.  I liked Felicity Jones as Jyn, but I don’t think she made as much of an impact as Daisy Ridley did last year as Rey in STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).  Like the rest of the cast and the entire movie, Jones gets better as the movie goes along.

I could take or leave Diego Luna as Cassian Andor.

I actually enjoyed some of the supporting characters more here.  I enjoyed both Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe and Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus throughout the movie.  I always enjoy Mads Mikkelsen, from TV’s HANNIBAL, and we just saw him as the villain in DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).  I also really enjoyed him as the Bond villain Le Chiffre in the first Daniel Craig Bond film CASINO ROYALE (2006).  Mikkelsen is fine here as  Galen Erson, even if ultimately the role doesn’t allow him to truly showcase his talents.

ROGUE ONE was directed by Gareth Edwards, and I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of his work.  He directed the Bryan Cranston GODZILLA (2014) which I thought was just okay, and he directed MONSTERS (2010) a stylish horror film that in spite of its title didn’t really feature too many monsters.  Edward’s films are always visually interesting, but I find he tends to struggle to tell a story. ROGUE ONE struggled to draw me in, and I wasn’t all that interested until the final third of the movie.

Visually there is a lot to like about ROGUE ONE.  I enjoyed the various worlds we visit, and some of the shots in this film were very cinematic.  I liked the sequence near the end of the film where Jyn and Cassian have to climb the massive tower.  It was suspenseful and visually exciting.

That being said, I saw ROGUE ONE in 3D, and I can’t say that the 3D effects really added all that much to the film.

Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz wrote the screenplay, and it’s OK.  The actual story is very good, and my favorite part just might have been the plot point of Galen Erso purposely building a flaw into the design of the Death Star, which finally explains what had always seemed like a big glaring plot hole in the original STAR WARS.  But the characterizations were weak, and for most of this movie I didn’t feel like I really knew these characters, and that’s not a good thing.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY is visually pleasing throughout, and while hardcore STAR WARS fans might not mind the threadbare character development during the first half of this movie, it left me feeling cold and disinterested in what was going on, until the end, when things pick up big time for one very exciting and near perfect conclusion that ranks as one of the most memorable STAR WARS endings yet.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ALLIED (2016) Hearkens Back to 1940s Classics

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allied-poster

The best part about ALLIED (2016), a love story and thriller that takes place during World War II, is that it hearkens back to classic movies like CASABLANCA (1942) and Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (1946).  The worst part is that in spite of the nostalgia it evokes, it fails to rise to the levels which made those 1940s classics so memorable.

That being said, ALLIED is a solid film that is much better than the lack of hype surrounding it would lead you to believe.

ALLIED opens in 1940 Casablanca, where we meet Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) a British intelligence officer on a mission to assassinate a key Nazi figure.  He’s working with Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) a French Resistance fighter, and the two are posing as husband and wife as they work to infiltrate the inner circles of the Nazi regime in Casablanca.  It’s a bold assassination plot, and their chances of survival are slim.

But survive they do, and as they make their escape from Morocco, Max asks Marianne to come back to London with him and marry him, which she does.  The two of them, having risked so much to pull off their ruse in Casablanca, have clearly fallen in love.

The two begin a life in World War II London, even having a baby together, and life is as good as it can be for people being bombed regularly by the Nazis.  But things take a sinsiter turn when Max’s superior officer Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) informs him that British Intelligence suspects Marianne of being a Nazi spy, and that if proven true, that Max will have to kill her.

The final third of the film follows Max’s efforts to learn the truth about his wife- is she a spy or isn’t she, and if she is, then what will he do about it?

I really enjoyed ALLIED, although the film falls short of being something special.

I especially enjoyed the beginning of this movie.  It takes its time setting the stage for the assassination plot by Max and Marianne.  Lesser films would have begun with the assassination and jumped right into the marriage between Max and Marianne.  By inviting us into the stress and anxieties behind their ruse, the film really allows its audience to get to know Max and Marianne and to see just how it is that they fall in love.  It makes the second part of the film all the more painful because we see these two go through a lot and grow very close.

The scenes during this part of the movie involving Nazis are also very suspenseful and well done.  The opening third of the movie is compelling and tense.

The movie also looks great, fully capturing the period, which one would expect from a movie directed by Robert Zemeckis.  And it’s interesting that Zemeckis directed this movie, because you know he’s the guy behind such visual flicks as the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988), FOREST GUMP (1994), and THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004), but there really isn’t anything all that visual about ALLIED other than its period piece window dressings.  I mean, the film looks wonderful, but knowing that Zemeckis directed this one, I expected even more in terms of cinematic flair.  That’s not meant to be a knock on Zemeckis but simply an observation that knowing his resume I thought his work here was not all that reflective of his signature style.

The screenplay by Steven Night is as solid as the rest of the movie.  As I said, it does a nice job in the first act of allowing us to be a part of Max’s and Marianne’s love story.   The second act keeps things moving as the action switches to wartime London, and of course the final act turns things up a notch as the audience is eager to follow Max on his investigation, to help him learn the truth about his wife— is she a spy or isn’t she?

I thought the one place where the movie didn’t excel was its ending. Like the rest of the movie, it’s satisfactory, but it’s nothing special.  I had hoped that a phenomenal ending would put this movie over the top, but that was not the case.  It’s certainly not a bad ending by any means, but CASABLANCA it ain’t.

Night also wrote the screenplay for THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014), a wonderful film that was one of my favorite movies of 2014 yet seemed to fly under everyone else’s radar.

If Brad Pitt seems quite at home wearing a World War II military uniform, that’s because he’s already done so in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) and more recently in FURY (2014).  As Max Vatan, Pitt is just OK here.  I’ve seen him deliver far better performances— in MONEYBALL (2011), KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), to name just a few recent ones— than he gives here in ALLIED, where he seemed quiet and reserved throughout. For a man fearing that his wife is a Nazis spy, he never really shows the amount of angst one would expect from a man in his position.  It also doesn’t help that Pitt seems to wear the same blank expression on his face throughout the movie.  Sure, it’s the look of a man who is a covert intelligence officer, who is trained not to let others see his true feelings, so in terms of the plot of the movie, it’s fine, but in terms of letting an audience know what he’s thinking, it doesn’t fly.

The best performance in the movie belongs to Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard.  She nails Marianne’s persona.  In the opening act of the film, Marianne tells Max that she is successful at fooling people because her emotions are true and real.  She really does like the people she is infiltrating, and so her emotions are genuine and difficult to see through.  Which makes things all the more complicated for Max later when he’s trying to decipher if she is a Nazi spy or not.  Cotillard captures this duplicity brilliantly.  Because of her performance, the audience really believes that she is in love with Max, but like Max, we’re not so sure if these genuine feelings are legit or simply part of her job as a spy.

Cotillard is also terribly sexy in this role, and I enoyed Cotillard here better than in other Hollywood movies I’ve seen her in, movies like INCEPTION (2010) and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).

Jared Harris, an excellent actor who has a ton of credits, and who I have particularLy enjoyed in such movies as SHERLOCK HOLMES:  A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011) where he played Professor Moriarty, and the underrated Hammer Film THE QUIET ONES (2014), as well as the TV series MAD MEN (2009-2012) where he played Lane Pryce, is good here in a supporting role as Max’s superior, Frank Heslop.

For some reason, ALLIED has received almost no hype. I suspect, based on things that I’ve heard and read, that the powers that be had little faith in this movie.  It’s actually a pretty good movie, especially if you enjoy World War II period pieces.

Is it as good as those classics I mentioned at the outset of this review?  No, but then again, not many films are.  But it’s still a solid movie from beginning to end, worth the price of a movie ticket, and good for an enjoyable two hours at the movies.

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WAR DOGS (2016) -Gritty Tale of Guns & War

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war dogs poster

WAR DOGS (2016), the latest movie by HANGOVER trilogy director Todd Phillips, recounts the true story of friends David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli who became gun runners for the U.S. government during the Iraqi and Afghan wars.

The film opens with David Packouz (Miles Teller) lamenting that his life is going nowhere. He’s been working a thankless job as a professional massage therapist, and his business venture to sell bed sheets to nursing homes has fallen flat.  He does have a beautiful wife Iz (Ana de Armas) but once he learns she’s pregnant he fears he’s not going to be able to afford having a baby.

Enter his best friend from school Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who has returned to Florida to set up shop with his gun selling business.  Efraim takes David on as a partner, and he explains to David how his business works, that he has taken advantage of a plan set up by the Bush administration which allows small businesses to bid on U.S. military contracts. Efraim explains that most of the huge contracts still go to the large mainstream weapons manufacturers, but even with the “crumbs” as Efraim calls them, you can still make a lot of money.

And they do.  Within the first few months of working with Efraim, David is earning close to $300,000.  And things only get more lucrative for them, especially after they travel to Iraq to personally deliver a truckload of Italian made berettas to the U.S. military, driving through a dangerous stretch of land known as “the triangle of death”  to do it.  After this stunning delivery, their reputation begins to grow.

They travel to Las Vegas to a weapons convention which Efraim calls “Comic Con with guns” and they decide to go all in as they try to secure their largest deal yet, as they learn that the U.S. military is attempting to arm the entire Afghan army.  The job proves too large for them, until they attract the attention of the infamous and uber shady arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) who tells them he can get them all the ammo they need to pull off the deal, as it’s stashed away in Albania where the Albanian government is desperately trying to sell off its stockpile of ammuntion.  Girard tells them he can’t do the job himself since he’s on a terrorist watch list.

Efraim and David agree to work with Girard, and they pull off their largest sale ever, earning them millions of dollars.  Of course, they also enter illegal territory here, which eventually attracts the attention of the U.S. government.

As I said, WAR DOGS was directed by Todd Phillips, the man who directed the three HANGOVER movies, but don’t let this connection mislead you.  WAR DOGS really isn’t a comedy.  Sure, there are parts that you will laugh at, but for the most part its a gritty captivating drama about the shady world of gun running during the Iraqi war.

As such, I really liked WAR DOGS.  The story works, thanks to sharp screenplay by director Phillips, Stephen Chin, and Jason Smilovic.  It tells a riveting story, has some memorable lines, and does a nice job with the characterizations.

Sadly, we’ve been stuck fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the early 2000s, but one positive—if you can call it that— that has come from this period is that it has provided a canvas for some pretty good movies.  A lot of stories, nearly all of them tragic, have come out of these wars, and filmmakers have done an admirable job telling them, with films like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and THE HURT LOCKER (2008).  You can add WAR DOGS to this list.

Both Miles Teller and Jonah Hill do fine jobs here.  Teller has starred in the DIVERGENT series and the recent reboot of FANTASTIC FOUR (2015) as a very young Reed Richards, and of course he received high praise in the Oscar winner WHIPLASH (2014).  He’s excellent again here.  He’s perfect in the role, making David the everyday “normal” guy who gets involved with his best buddy’s shady business dealings for the right reasons- to support his wife and baby- and who sticks to his guns–heh heh– when things go south and refuses to throw out his principles.

While Jonah Hill is mostly known for his goofy comedies, he’s already shown acting chops in such films as MONEYBALL (2011) and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) so I’m not sure if this is his best performance yet, but it’s certainly a good one.  In fact, Hill is clearly the best part of this movie.

He makes Efraim volatile, unpredictable, and a hoot to watch.  As David explains, Efraim’s gift is he can make himself into the exact person that the person he’s trying to con wants him to be. As such, you can never trust him.  Hill is great at capturing this part of Efraim.  He also gained a lot of weight for the role, and he really becomes this character.

And Bradley Cooper is actually very good in a small role as the shadowy arms dealer Henry Girard.  Sometimes when major actors appear in small roles you’re left wondering why?  Not the case here, as Cooper gives this guy a demeanor that makes you actually like him.

Director Todd Phillips also gives us some memorable scenes, like the suspenseful trek across the Triangle of Death.  I also liked the scene just before this sequence when David and Efraim have to negotiate with the help of a young boy translator to get their weapons into Iraq.  The scenes in Albania were also sufficiently gloomy.

All in all, I really liked WAR DOGS, a captivating and entertaining film that plays like a cross between THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and AMERICAN SNIPER.

Its story of how David and Efraim were able to weasel their way into the lucrative cutthroat world of weapons distribution  for the U.S. government and actually become major players in the arms dealing business will leave you shaking your head,  questioning just how it was that the government encouraged this to happen in the first place.

—END—

 

EYE IN THE SKY (2016) Contrived But Effective

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If you could save the lives of hundreds of people who will perish in a terrorist attack, but by doing so, take the life of an innocent little girl, would you do it?

That’s basically the question asked in EYE IN THE SKY (2016) a taut thriller in which the powers that be wrestle with this exact dilemma.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is coordinating a mission via drone cameras to locate members of an elusive terrorist cell in Kenya.  Piloting the drones in the air are two American pilots, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox).  Powell also has a man on the ground Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) who controls a smaller drone which is able to take interior pictures of the compound.  It’s this drone that not only locates the terrorists but reveals that they are about to conduct a suicide mission.  Suddenly, the “capture” mission becomes a “kill” mission.

To complicate matters, a nine year-old girl sits out front of the compound selling bread for her family. As a result, pilot Steve Watts requests that Colonel Powell verify with her superiors that they have the clearance to conduct a mission that will cause lethal collateral damage.

What follows is an oftentimes terse study in diplomacy, politics, and military positioning as the various powers-that-be wrestle with the decision of just who will be the one to give the official green light to a mission that will no doubt kill an innocent little girl.  And it’s all decided upon from the relative comfort and safety of situation rooms across the globe, miles upon miles away from the action.

This would all be terribly disturbing if it wasn’t so contrived.  I had difficulty wrapping my head around the notion that a government worth its salt would even consider letting a terrorist group armed with suicide bombs walk away, if the collateral damage was simply one life.  It’s a great essay question for a philosophy class, but as a plot in a movie, it wasn’t convincing.

Still, the story put forth in EYE IN THE SKY is timely and relevant.  It’s just not always believable.  It asks important questions in this day and age where warfare can be conducted by drones.  And the screenplay by Guy Hibbert does create three-dimensional characters who struggle with the dilemma they face.

Of course, the high caliber of actors in this one also helps.

Helen Mirren is superb as Colonel Katherine Powell.  Her take on the situation is simple:  the terrorists must be taken out.  The innocent girl’s inevitable death must be accepted.  If not, they will have the blood of many more innocent victims on their hands if they let the terrorists escape.

Both Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are equally effective as the pilots who want no part of killing an innocent girl.  Paul, who was phenomenal on TV’s BREAKING BAD as Jesse Pinkman, has been excellent in every film I’ve seen him in since.  I hope he continues to land film roles and that they grow in prominence.  Here, his Steve Watts just wants to do the right thing, and Paul is excellent showing Watts’ anguish when it becomes clear he’s going to have to do something he doesn’t want to do.

Phoebe Fox, who I enjoyed a lot in the horror sequel THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2:  ANGEL OF DEATH (2014) is equally as good as fellow pilot Carrie Gershon, as she shares Watts’ frustrations.

Alan Rickman, in his last live action film role [he lends his voice to the upcoming ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016)] plays Lieutenant General Frank Benson, a military officer who tries to see both sides of the coin but ultimately sides with Mirren’s Colonel Powell.  Rickman also enjoys one of the best bits in the movie, a brief speech near the end where he scolds a diplomat for questioning a soldier’s understanding of the price of warfare.  It’s a great moment.

Rickman, who passed away in January,  looks pale and tired here. Perhaps he was supposed to look this way for the role, but I couldn’t help but think while watching him on screen that he didn’t look healthy.

The movie is dedicated to Rickman’s memory.

Barkhad Abdi, who was memorable as the head pirate in CAPTAIN PHILIPS (2013), is nearly as good here as Jama Farah, the agent on the ground flying the miniature drone, who later risks his life in a futile attempt to buy the little girl’s bread so she can get clear of the area, in one of the film’s more suspenseful sequences.

EYE IN THE SKY was directed by Gavin Hood, who also appears in the film as Aaron Paul’s superior officer Lt. Colonel Ed Walsh, and he’s actually very good in these few scenes.  He’s not bad as the director either.  Hood directed the superhero film X-MEN ORIGINS:  WOLVERINE (2009), a film that most X-Men fans hated, but I really liked.

That being said, EYE IN THE SKY is not a phenomenal movie, nor does Hood hit a homerun with it.  The pacing is somewhat slow, and it takes a while to get going.  More importantly, its main moral dilemma, whether or not to spare the girl’s life, comes off as a fake hypothetical situation.  Had we been talking about hundreds of lives potentially lost due to collateral damage, then that might have been more believable.

Still, the actors here do such a good job bringing this situation to life, that I found myself looking past this flaw and going along with the story.

The more relevant topic this film examines is warfare conducted from the comfort and safety of war rooms miles away from the action, but even this theme is not handled crisply.  The movie seems to be implying that this kind of warfare— using drones— is too easy and will lead to generals making ill-fated decisions because they don’t have to worry about the lives of their soldiers on the ground.  However, in this movie, the folks giving the orders are more cautious than if they had soldiers on the ground.

All this being said, EYE IN THE SKY does have some fine moments.  The scene where Barkhad Abdi’s agent on the ground attempts to buy the little girl’s bread to get her away from the missile strike is extremely suspenseful and one of the more exciting scenes in the film.

And every time Alan Rickman is on screen the film seems to become that much more compelling.

EYE IN THE SKY is an inconsistent movie, but it builds as it goes along and finishes strong, ending with an emphatic exclamation point.  And with its talented cast, it overcomes its contrivances to the point where it’s ultimately worth your while.

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WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016) – War Comedy Rather Tame

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What would happen if 30 ROCK’S Liz Lemon left her TV studio job and went to Afghanistan to cover the war?

Check out WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016) and you’ll have the answer.  Well, sort of.

Tina Fey, who played Liz Lemon for 7 seasons on the television show 30 ROCK, and stars in WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016) isn’t playing Lemon here, but she might as well be. The similarities between Lemon and reporter Kim Baker, who Fey plays in this movie, are many.   They both have smart-alecky senses of humor, are awkward around men, and are energetic and ambitious.  The one big difference is Lemon is much funnier.

Not that movies about wars should be funny.  After all, war is no laughing matter.  Yet, when done right, black comedies about war— M*A*S*H (1972), GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (1987)— can be classics.  When done wrong, they can be embarrassingly awful.  WHISKEY TANGO FOXTRAT falls somewhere in between.  It’s not bad.  In fact, at times it’s pretty darn good, but on the whole, it just lacks the teeth that a black comedy about the war in Afghanistan needs to be successful.

It’s all very light and peripheral.

It’s 2004, and reporter Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is sent to Afghanistan to cover the war there because the network she works for is scrambling to find enough reporters to provide coverage of the multiple wars.  Baker agrees to go even though she has no foreign correspondent experience.  She’s as green as a cucumber.

Her contact there Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) quickly shows her the ropes and introduces her to all the folks she needs to know, like the man leading her security detail, Nic (Stephen Peacocke), fellow reporters Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), the leader of the Marine unit she’s covering, General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) and the local Afghan leader, Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina).

At first, Kim is overwhelmed and doubts she can last there very long, but as it turns out, she shows that she has what it takes to get the job done, like running alongside Marines during a fierce fire fight and capturing it all on film.  She quickly gains the respect of her fellow journalists and becomes something of a name back home.

Fellow reporter Tanya Vanderpoel shows Kim the wild times of the night life, something that at first she resists, but eventually she lets down her guard and accepts the lifestyle there, even becoming romantically involved with Iaian MacKelpie.

In short, Kim becomes addicted to the high octane life of a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, until she realizes that this lifestyle as much as it provides her with a constant rush isn’t normal, and is not something she wants to do for the rest of her life.

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT attempts to show the horrors of war through the eyes of an out-of-place reporter who brings her snarky humor along with her to Afghanistan.  The problem is neither the horror nor the humor rise above standard fare, making this movie while entertaining nonetheless a bit underwhelming.

Tina Fey can be hilariously funny.  She’s not here, although her Kim Baker is a likable enough character.  At first the humor in the movie stems from Kim’s being so green and inexperienced.  Later it’s watching her make full use of her gumption.  But the film never takes these moments far enough.

When Kim finally decides to go all in with the night life, for example, the film never shows things as bawdy as they’re supposed to be.  We witness Kim and her friends binge drinking and talking about wild sex, but we never see it.  We see Kim vomit for a couple of seconds the next morning, but we never see her act like someone who really overdid it the night before.

Later in the story, Kim becomes involved romantically with Iain MacKelpie, and although Martin Freeman delivers what may be the best performance in the film as MacKelpie, he and Fey share very little chemistry.  Their relationship is supposed to be hot and heavy, yet it’s all so asexual.  Part of the problem is that Tina Fey generates as much sexual charisma as a library book on insect mating habits.

As I said, Martin Freeman delivers the best performance in the movie.  Freeman, from TV’s SHERLOCK and THE HOBBIT movies, among other things, gives MacKelpie some range at least.  At first, he comes off as an absolute cad, the last person you’d expect Kim to fall for, but when he comes to her rescue at one point, we see that he’s a three-dimensional cad with genuine feelings.  Once they become involved, he actually treats Kim very well.

Billy Bob Thornton does his thing in a nice performance as General Hollanek.  Likewise, Margot Robbie does well as veteran reporter Tanya Vanderpoel, who shows Kim the ropes and encourages her to becomes a savvier reporter.

Christopher Abbott makes his mark as Kim’s contact person Fahim Ahmadzai, and Alfred Molina enjoys some humorous moments as Afghan official Ali Massoud Sadiq, a man who has the hots for Kim and is always trying to find a way to get her to go to bed with him.  While some of Molina’s scenes are funny, others are too over the top and come off as phony.

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT could certainly have benefitted from some sharper writing.  The screenplay by Robert Carlock, based on the book “The Taliban Shuffle:  Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Kim Barker, comes close to hitting its mark but never quite gets there.  While it’s true that for the most part there was an undercurrent of uncomfortableness throughout the story, as a movie about the war in Afghanistan should be, the true horrors of the war were never quite hit upon.

For example, at one point Iain MacKelpie finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he’s kidnapped.  At this point, I’m thinking, western journalist captured, this is not going to end well, but it does, as Iain is rescued without suffering nary a scratch.

The humor never totally works either.  Writer Carlock wrote for SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and for 30 ROCK, so you’d expect this one to be quite funny, but it’s not.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the same two directors who directed the very funny CRAZY, STUPID LOVE (2011) don’t display the same comic hand  here.  They do a good job with the sense of place, as I certainly felt transported to Afghanistan, but for some reason, the horrors of war never come to light.  I expected this tale to be more disturbing.

Likewise, with Carlock writing the screenplay, Ficarra and Requa at the helm, and Tina Fey in the lead, I expected this one to be funnier than it was.

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT generates some sympathy for the soldiers fighting in this Afghan war, as well as some for the reporters covering it.  However, one thing that is missing is a sense of the Afghan people.  The main Afghans we get to know are almost caricatures.

The film could have used a heavier dose of realism.

The film’s title, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, refers to the letters WTF, and while I’m sure there will be some viewers who after seeing this movie will be asking just that, I think the better question after watching this movie is Where’s The Ferocity?  War is ferocious, and a movie about war should be as well.

While not bad, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is far too tame to succeed as a black comedy about war.

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Thought-Provoking THREE KINGS (1999) Quirky and Intense

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Streaming Video Review:  THREE KINGS (1999)

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Michael Arruda

 

With the upcoming release of George Clooney’s latest movie, TOMORROWLAND, due in theaters on May 22, 2015, I decided to check out an earlier Clooney film that I had missed the first time around.  THREE KINGS (1999), a movie about the first Iraqi war, starring Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and now available on Netflix Streaming, takes place in the waning days of the Persian Gulf War.

When Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) learns that three soldiers have discovered a map leading to massive amounts of gold which Saddam Hussein had taken from the Kuwaitis, he decides to steal it.  He enlists the aid of these three soldiers, Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Private First Class Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze).  They set out in secret for the gold, but along the way they witness the Iraqi Republican Guard executing an innocent Iraqi, an action which Major Gates can’t let stand.  He retaliates, and in the process, rescues a large group of Iraqi prisoners, a group that includes women and children.

Suddenly, Gates’ objectives change, as he finds himself responsible for this group of prisoners, and he agrees to help them reach the Iranian border, a quest that puts him and his men up against Saddam Hussein’s forces and his own American army.  And then there’s the matter of the gold, which Gates still has no intention of giving up, setting the stage for a thrilling journey through the Iraqi desert as they attempt to escort Iraqis to freedom.

I really enjoyed THREE KINGS, both its story and its quirky tone, which for the most part works as a black comedy.

It was interesting to watch a movie about the first Iraqi war, made before the events of September 11.  So many recent movies have focused on the second Iraqi war and the events following 9/11.  Events depicted in this movie, while still disturbing— it’s a war after all— still don’t play as intense as recent films on the second Iraqi war and the war in Afghanistan, movies like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), and THE HURT LOCKER (2008).  Our collective consciousness is much darker now than it was when this film was made in 1999.

But that’s not to say that THREE KINGS doesn’t have its share of intense moments.  It does.  The execution of the Iraqi woman in front of her young daughter, for example, is a jarring sequence, as is the torture sequence where Mark Wahlberg’s Sergeant Barlow is captured by Iraqi soldiers and tortured with electric shocks and is eventually forced to drink motor oil.  These scenes are not for the squeamish.

I also had to keep reminding myself that this was about the first Iraqi war.  For instance, when the film makes reference to Saddam Hussein and the influence he wields over his Republican Guard, I found myself scratching my head questioning, “Saddam Hussein?  Isn’t he dead?”  Of course, then I’d remember that the objective of this first war was only to oust Hussein from Kuwait, and that he wasn’t removed from power and eventually executed until after the second Iraqi war.

Writer/Director David O. Russell has made a hard hitting war movie that effectively makes its point that although Americans largely viewed this war as a “clean” war, in that not a lot of American soldiers lost their lives, and that its objective was largely met, it’s still a war, and for the people of Iraq, there was nothing “clean” about it.  It disrupted their lives and caused death and destruction.

Russell keeps things from being too bleak with a quirky tone that generates laughter, albeit mostly of the uncomfortable variety.  Spike Jonze’ Private Vig is humorous in his naivety, even though his ignorant views are as sad as they are funny.  His banter with Walberg’s Sergeant Barlow is the liveliest part of the movie.

Russell would go on to make THE FIGHTER (2010), also with Wahlberg, and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), two films I liked better than THREE KINGS.  Russell also directed AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), the overly ambitious 1970s con artist tale which I liked but didn’t love, and I think that while THREE KINGS is a less ambitious film than AMERICAN HUSTLE, I liked it more.

As screenplays go, Russell’s work here with THREE KINGS is very good, as the story remains compelling throughout and actually gets better and more exciting as the movie goes along, and the dialogue is first-rate.  It makes its points about the Gulf War and provides plenty of entertaining snappy dialogue that is riveting and real.  That being said, it’s not quite as good as his screenplay for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).  That one was a grand slam.

George Clooney is terrific as Major Archie Gates.  At first, the jury is out on this character, as you wonder what kind of a man he is since he’s willing to steal gold from the Iraqis, but when he steps up to intervene on the innocent Iraqis’ behalf, you see firsthand what kind of a man he is, and he’s all the better for it.  Clooney is effective throughout and makes Gates in spite of his early actions a man you can root for.

Reportedly, Clooney and director Russell feuded on the set, so much so that Clooney declared he’d never work with Russell again.  Not sure if this is true or not, but Clooney’s Gates certainly seems like his he has a chip on his shoulder throughout this movie.

Mark Walberg is also excellent as Sergeant Troy Barlow.  There’s a youthful exuberance about Barlow, a naivety that nonetheless is balanced with a sense of responsibility and leadership.  Barlow takes the even more naïve Private Vig under his wing and looks out for him throughout the story.  It was fun to see a younger Walberg, and while he’s very good in this movie, he’s gotten even better over the years, improving to the point where he’s one of the better actors working today.

 

Spike Jonze is memorable as Private Conrad Vig, although I wanted to give the character a library card and a newspaper with the instructions to start reading.  Vig is a backwards but well-meaning character, and Jonze does a nice job capturing these traits.  Ice Cube is also notable as the religious Sergeant Chief Elgin.  He provides the moral conscience for the group.

Nora Dunn is also very good as reporter Adriana Cruz, who spends the bulk of the movie getting the runaround from Clooney’s Gates, but we get to know her well as she shares her lamentations about the war, wondering what this war was really all about.  And at the end, when Gates needs the help of the press to get his job done, it’s Cruz that he turns to.

I really liked THREE KINGS.  It’s a thought-provoking exciting movie about a war that nowadays has been largely overshadowed by the traumatic events which were soon to follow it.

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