DETROIT (2017) – Powerful Portrait of 1967 Detroit Race Riots

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The best part about DETROIT (2017), director Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful portrait of race riots in 1967 Detroit, is that it doesn’t play like a movie at all.  It comes off as raw live footage, transporting its audience to 1967 Detroit as witnesses to the horror which occurred during that time.  It’s based on a true event which happened at the Algiers Motel in Detroit.

In DETROIT, you won’t find traditional characterizations, main characters with background stories and depth, a plot with a neat and tidy story arc, or anything else that makes you think you are watching a movie.  You will find horror and revulsion.

The centerpiece of the movie is a brutal and misguided police interrogation inside a hotel which leads to the deaths of three black men.  This wince-inducing sequence takes up a sizable chunk of the movie.  It’ll leave you squirming in your seat, wishing it would just end, but it doesn’t end.  It goes on, and as such, it’s one of the more riveting sequences in a movie I’ve seen in a long while.  Not only are the Detroit police tactics disturbing, but the fact that everyone else on the scene— the State Police, the National Guard soldiers— look the other way is equally sickening.

DETROIT opens at the outset of the 1967 race riots in Detroit, and then follows a group of characters whose fate becomes connected when they cross paths at the Algiers Motel. When someone shoots a toy gun in the vicinity of the National Guard soldiers on the street, it’s mistaken for sniper fire.  The Detroit police descend upon the hotel with the soldiers, and the police interrogation begins.

Top-billed John Boyega plays a young black man named Dismukes who’s working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  One of the jobs he holds is as a security officer in a building across the street from the Algiers Motel.  Dismukes has a good head on his shoulders, and early on he brings coffee to the National Guard soldiers, alerting them that he’s across the street guarding the building, letting them know that if things go down, he’s on their side, which is exactly what happens when the “sniper fire” draws the authorities to the Algiers Motel.

Dismukes is on the scene as well.  He views it as his duty to keep as many people alive as possible, and so he goes out of his way to play level-headed peacemaker, which in this case, since he also allows the police violence to continue, may not have been the best idea.  Dismukes is accused later by his black brethren of being an “Uncle Tom.”

Since there aren’t any lead roles here, fans of John Boyega might be disappointed that he’s not in this one more, but it’s still a much meatier role than when we saw Boyega last, in THE CIRCLE (2017), which really wasted Boyega’s talent.  He does a nice job here as Dismukes.  I found Boyega’s performance reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington.

The other big name in the cast is Anthony Mackie, who plays a former soldier recently home from Vietnam named Greene who finds himself among the interrogated.  It’s a good performance by Mackie, and the scene where he decides he won’t lay down for the police is a potent moment.  It’s also jarring to watch this character, someone who fought in Vietnam and survived, beaten back home in the United States by officers of the Detroit police department.

One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Algee Smith as Larry, a young singer whose group’s performance was cancelled by the riots.  The group becomes separated, and Larry and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) find themselves at the motel. Smith nails the emotions, from fear to disillusionment to eventually anger.  Likewise, Jacob Latimore is very good as Fred, who like the rest of the black men forced against the wall during the interrogation, becomes more and more terrified as the night goes on.

But the most memorable performance in the film just might belong to Will Poulter as the racist Detroit police officer Krauss. You can’t take your eyes off this guy.  He’s that despicable.  This might be a break-out role for Poulter, who starred in THE MAZE RUNNER (2014) and was in THE REVENANT (2015), but I remember Poulter most for his role as Jennifer Aniston’s and Jason Sudekis’ son in the comedy WE’RE THE MILLERS (2013).  Poulter’s work here is about as far removed from his comic work in WE’RE THE MILLERS as you can get.

Likewise, Ben O’Toole is nearly as chilling as Krauss’ partner Flynn.  They’re the epitome of racist police officers.

And while DETROIT doesn’t paint a positive picture of the Detroit police, it does show that these two officers did not represent the entire department.  During the movie, we see other white officers helping black people, and we see other white officers chastising Krauss’ motivations.  The problem is, and this is where the film remains true to life, that while most did not share Krauss’ views towards blacks, no one felt strong enough to do anything about it.  This film is every bit as much about those who turned a blind eye on the proceedings as those like Krauss who instigated them.

There are also two strong performances by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever as two white women, Julie and Karen, staying at the motel.  When they are found with the black men, they are accused by the police as being whores.  They endure both verbal abuse and in Julie’s case physical abuse, as the police strip her top from her.

The screenplay by Mark Boal is first-rate, which is no surprise, since Boal also wrote the screenplays to the two other critically acclaimed movies directed by Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).  The dialogue is superb, the situations tense, and the characters while not fleshed out in the traditional way are all very real.

Director Kathryn Bigelow makes full use of her camera, from painful close-ups to terse hand-held camera work during chase scenes.  She also captures the race riot streets of 1967 Detroit.  I really felt as if I had been transported back to this volatile time.

I would imagine Bigelow will receive some backlash regarding this movie, as it’s a rather one-sided interpretation, and the police are not on the bright side of this one.  But the reality is, racism still exists, and until it doesn’t, stories like this need to be told.

DETROIT is a superior movie, a powerful movie, and one that is even more disturbing because it takes place in a country that is known for its freedom and its rights, but as shown in this movie, those freedom and rights don’t extend to everybody.

—END—

DUNKIRK (2017) – Innovative Movie Brings Miraculous World War II Rescue to Life

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Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling.

DUNKIRK (2017), the new World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some.

As he has been known to do in the past, Christopher Nolan tells this story in a nonlinear fashion, and he does it with a minimum of dialogue and character development.  Yet, the film doesn’t suffer for it.  Nolan has called DUNKIRK his most experimental film, and I would have to agree.

In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape.

However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  The smaller civilian ships had the advantage of being able to navigate the shallow waters off the beaches of Dunkirk.  And while militarily speaking Dunkirk was a massive failure, one big surrender and escape mission, in terms of morale, it became a major turning point in the war.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

On land, the movie follows a young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the beaches of Dunkirk as he attempts with his fellow soldiers to survive long enough to be rescued.  On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) set off in their small ship to Dunkirk to assist with the rescue.  And in the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) do their best to fend off the German planes long enough for the rescue to be a success.

It’s a dramatic yet simple story told in an innovative way by Christopher Nolan. While my favorite Christopher Nolan film remains THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) a close second, his work here on DUNKIRK rivals both these movies.

Of course, the film that set the bar for war movies remains Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  Is DUNKIRK as disturbing as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN?  No, but it doesn’t have to be.  It’s an effective movie in its own right.

And while the opening moments of DUNKIRK are not as in-your-face horrific as the opening in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, it’s still intense and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  Young Tommy’s early escapes from death are riveting and tense.  The film is rated PG-13 and as such you won’t see much bloodshed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  R-rated movies these days use CGI blood which often looks fake. There’s nothing fake looking about DUNKIRK.  It all looks very real.

Christopher Nolan purposely chose unknown actors to portray the soldiers on the beach, and there is a minimal of dialogue.  We learn nothing about Tommy’s background, and he and his fellow soldiers do little more than looked dazed, exhausted, and frightened, which is exactly how they are supposed to look.  In most other movies, this lack of character development and lack of dialogue would be troubling, but not so here.  Here in DUNKIRK it comes off as authentic and real.

As such, Fionn Whitehead is effective and believable as Tommy, a character we know little about but we still want him to survive.  All we need to know is he’s on that beach and needs to get home.  In this situation, that’s enough to make his character work.

Aneurin Barnard is equally as good as Gibson, a French soldier Tommy befriends as they try to escape.  Since Gibson is French and speaks no English, he speaks in the movie even less than Tommy.  One Direction band member Harry Styles plays Alex, a soldier Tommy and Gibson rescue.  Styles gives Alex more personality than any other soldier in the film, and he makes Alex a cynical young man who gives away Gibson’s secret, that he is a French soldier impersonating a British one in order to be rescued by the British.

The folks on the boat probably deliver the best performances in the movie.  Mark Rylance is excellent as Mr. Dawson, the man who we learn later lost a son to the war and seems to embrace this mission as a way to save all his other “sons.”  Tom Glynn-Carney as Dawson’s son Peter and Barry Keoghan as Peter’s friend George also have some fine moments.

And Cillian Murphy is very good as the first soldier rescued by Dawson.  Shell-shocked, he resists their attempt to go to Dunkirk to rescue more soldiers.  He does not want to go back, as he is convinced they will die.

Once again, Tom Hardy is playing a role with a minimum of dialogue and with his face covered.  I’m starting to get used to Hardy playing roles where we can’t see his face, from Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) to Mad Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). As pilot Farrier he only has a handful of lines here.  But that doesn’t stop Hardy from delivering a memorable performance.

Jack Lowden is also very good as Farrier’s fellow pilot Collins.

And while he’s not in the movie a whole lot, Kenneth Branagh also makes his mark as the well-respected Commander Bolton.

In another buck of traditional storytelling, there isn’t a major woman character to be found, but again, it doesn’t hurt this powerhouse movie.

There are a lot of riveting sequences. Tommy’s initial escape from German soldiers gets the film off to a tense start. The sequence where Tommy, Gibson and Alex hide out in an abandoned ship stranded on the beach during low tide just before it is used as target practice by the German soldiers is as suspenseful as it gets.

Scenes of ships being bombed and sunk are harrowing and cinematic.  And the editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while.

Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.  They make you want to cover your ears.  In short, during the battle scenes in DUNKIRK, the audience truly feels as if they are part of the battle.  You’ll want to duck for cover.

Sure, I could have used a bit more dialogue and character development.  Perhaps that would have made this movie perfect for me.  But as it stands, it’s still a pretty remarkable film.

DUNKIRK is a harrowing adventure, a rousing look at a pivotal moment in history, a rescue that had it not happened, would have changed the future of western civilization because the Nazis most likely would have conquered England and France, and who knows what would have happened after that.

But that’s not what happened, thanks to the herculean efforts of hundreds of civilians and their small ships, who against all odds rescued 338,000 trapped British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s history brought to life by a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

—END—

THE BEGUILED (2017) – Showcases Talented Female Cast

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Director Sofia Coppolla and the cast of THE BEGUILED (2017).

THE BEGUILED (2017) is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name, directed by Don Siegel.

The Eastwood film, which is something of a cult favorite among Eastwood fans, is certainly one of the more offbeat and haunting movies Eastwood ever made.  It was a box office failure at the time, due to a poor ad campaign which marketed it as another Clint Eastwood action film, which it isn’t, and also because audiences in 1971 weren’t quite sure what to make of this dark tale of a Union soldier recuperating at an all-girl Confederate school.  Directed by Don Siegel, the film is steeped in atmosphere and style.

The 2017 version was directed by Sofia Coppola and tells pretty much the same story.

In Virginia, in the waning days of the Civil War, a young girl Amy (Oona Laurence) discovers a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods while she is picking mushrooms.  She brings the soldier back to her school, and the head of the school, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), decides it would be un-Christian of them to turn the Corporal over to the Confederate army until he has a chance to recuperate.  And so they tend to his wounds and nurse him back to health, with the intention of handing him over to the Confederate army once his wounds have healed.

But John is a man, and the school is full of women and girls who simply haven’t been around men all that much.  As such, during his stay, the sexual tensions build.  Not only is Miss Martha attracted to John in her own reserved way, but teen student  Alicia (Elle Fanning) can’t keep herself from openly flirting with him.  Even young Amy is attracted to him.

And matters become more complicated when privately John declares his love for teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who he says is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Edwina falls for John instantly, mostly because she is unhappy and sees John as her ticket out of her present life at the school. She would like to run away with him.

For his part, John remains quiet and polite, keeping things proper, except for his declaration of love to Edwina.  But one night he makes a fateful decision to enter a certain bedroom, and things change dramatically from that point on.

Director Sofia Coppolla, who also wrote the screenplay, gets the atmosphere right but struggles somewhat with the characterizations, specifically with Corporal John McBurney, who is too reserved to be effective.

THE BEGUILED is beautiful to look at.  Director Coppolla captures the essence of a school in the southern countryside, photographing the manor through abundant green trees and filtered sunlight.  There are also some nice shots of red sunlight reflecting off the front of the elegant structure.

But the majority of the film is shot in shadowy darkness, as the bulk of the action takes place inside the school, lit by low burning candles.  The look of this film drew me in immediately and kept me in its Civil War world throughout.

It is definitely slow-paced and plays out like the period piece Civil War drama that it is. This worked for me for the most part, but towards the end of the film when things get seriously darker, the film downplayed these heavy moments, which worked against the movie for me.  I expected things to get very ugly, but the horrible things that happen are only hinted at and not fully explored.  The film never really rises above its southern slice of life portrait.

As I said, Sofia Coppolla also wrote the screenplay, which is based on the screenplay to the 1971 film by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, itself based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan.   Coppolla does a nice job with the female characters, but Corporal John McBurney isn’t as defined as well as he needs to be.  In the 1971 film, you knew Clint Eastwood’s character was conning the women. Here, as played by Colin Farrell, the audience isn’t so sure.  Is he playing these women or not?  Since the screenplay isn’t clear, it makes what happens at the end of the film far less satisfying, because we don’t know how to react to John’s fate, since we really don’t know what kind of a person he truly is.

In terms of casting, you can’t ask for a better female cast.

Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha as a strong and independent woman.  She is clearly in charge of everyone at the school.  But questions remain about her character as well. For instance, would she do what John accuses her of doing at the end of the movie?  Or did she do it for the reason she said, to save his life?  The film isn’t clear.

Kirsten Dunst is also very good as Edwina, the depressed school teacher who is only too willing to fall in love with John.  And Elle Fanning is sultry and seductive as the young woman who is intent on getting John into her bed.

But it’s the younger girls who make an even stronger impression here.  Oona Lawrence is exceptional as young Amy, the girl who first finds John and really likes him throughout the movie.  Angourie Rice, who played Ryan Gosling’s daughter in last year’s comedy THE NICE GUYS (2016) is memorable here as Jane, the one girl in the school who is offended by the idea of housing a Union soldier at the school.  And Addison Riecke also has some significant moments as Marie, the girl who makes the ominous suggestion at the end of the movie on how to stop John.

As John, Colin Farrell is okay, but I’ve seen him deliver far better performances.  He was too calm and relaxed throughout.  The character seemed to be begging for a nefarious side, which doesn’t come out at all.  Towards the end of the film, when bad things begin to happen, we finally see John act passionately, which gives us some insight into his character, but it’s too little too late.  He remains polite to the last, apologizing after his deplorable behavior and sounding sincere in his apology, which makes the ending of this one all the more tragic.  Then again, without a clear-cut defintion of John’s character, it’s difficult to know how to feel about him.

In spite of this, when the women make their bold decision at the end of the movie, the coldness with which they proceed is jarring and potent.  The shot of the women around the dinner table afterwards is one of the more memorable images in the film.

That being said, the film would have been stronger had it gone to these dark places more often instead of avoiding them.

THE BEGUILED is a moderately entertaining movie, a showcase for its talented female cast and its female writer/director, Sofia Coppolla, but with a vaguely defined male protagonist, the story they are telling is far less potent than it should have been.

—END—

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.  

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) – A Morality Tale Without A Lesson

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BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) is a morality tale for the Trump era, the story of a woman who views the world in terms of healing.  Her core beliefs are challenged when she crosses paths with a Trump-like character at a dinner party one evening.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a holistic medical practitioner and a massage therapist. When she makes a long drive out to a wealthy client’s California beach-front home to make a house call, her car breaks down. Her client, Cathy (Connie Britton) generously invites Beatriz to stay for dinner until the mechanic arrives to repair her car.

Cathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky) is lukewarm to the idea, since the dinner party is work-related, and they are entertaining the larger than life business giant Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), but Cathy insists. For one thing, she says, Beatriz is mourning the death of her pet goat, as her bully of a neighbor recently killed it in shocking fashion, and also, they owe a great debt of gratitude to Beatriz, since she was instrumental in helping their teenage daughter get through and ultimately survive her cancer treatments. So, Grant relents, and Beatriz joins the party.

Things are awkward throughout, as Beatriz simply doesn’t fit in with this class of people. At one point, Strutt mistakes her for one of the servers. But Cathy makes all the appropriate introductions, and the dinner proceeds as favorably as it can, until Beatriz hears Doug speak of things that truly disturb her, from the way he hunts animals in Africa, to the way he conducts his business deals.

Eventually, there is a confrontation, and Beatriz finds herself having to make a decision regarding her feelings towards Mr. Strutt.

I can’t say that I really liked BEATRIZ AT DINNER all that much. For a while, I was interested in what was going on, and I was very curious about where this story was going to go, but where it ultimately goes, I thought was a major disappointment.

Director Miguel Arteta succeeds in making a very uncomfortable movie.  The scenes at the dinner party, where at times Beatriz is completely ignored, and at other times when she speaks, it’s of things the rest have no interest in, are wince-inducing. Of course, this is exactly the point, and director Arteta captures the class differences perfectly.

There’s also the jarring juxtaposition of the elegant decor of the home and the dress and demeanor of the wealthy guests with the plain and simple Beatriz, who looks as out-of-place as a Red Sox fan in Yankee Stadium. Sadder still, Beatriz doesn’t seem to realize how out of place she is.

These scenes work well, and I truly felt the rift between the two classes.

The trouble I had with BEATRIZ AT DINNER falls with the script by Mike White, a screenwriter who wrote a couple of Jack Black comedies, SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003) and NACHO LIBRE (2006). BEATRIZ AT DINNER is about as far removed from a comedy as you can get.

The set-up is perfect. The dinner is sufficiently awkward and painful. But the payoff isn’t up to snuff. Throughout the dinner, Beatriz says she thinks she knows Doug, and she also speaks about how people are reincarnated, and in their next lives they often settle debts with people they weren’t able to settle the first time around. At one point, she thinks Doug is a man who built a hotel in her home village which caused many in her village, her family included, to be forced to relocate. She quips that if he were that man, it would be fate that they met again, as she would have to kill him.

There are certainly sinister implications as to where this story might go.  Beatriz reaches certain realizations and conclusions, and then she must act on them. What she ultimately decides is a major letdown. It’s not exactly the most inspiring conclusion.

The acting is all very good.  Salma Hayek, of course, is excellent, in a very understated performance. She’s also photographed here as plain and as unflattering as possible, which contributes to her performance as the simple and straightforward Beatriz.

Likewise, John Lithgow is very good as Doug Strutt. And while he makes Strutt sufficiently annoying, he actually does a very good job instilling some sympathy into the character.  As such, in spite of what I had heard, Strutt didn’t really remind me all that much of Donald Trump, even though it’s clear that’s who the character is based on. But I found Lithgow’s interpretation of Strutt more well-rounded and sympathetic than the real-life Trump.

The cast of supporting characters is excellent. Connie Britton is effective as Cathy, a woman who goes out of her way to make Beatriz feel welcomed and comfortable, and who later feels personally wounded by Beatriz when things get ugly.  Even better than Britton is David Warshofsky as Cathy’s husband Grant. He really has no patience for Beatriz, and it shows.  I found him to be even less likeable than Doug Strutt.

Jay Duplass as Alex and Chloe Sevigny as his wife Shannon, and Amy Landecker as Doug’s wife Jeana round out the guest list and all do an admirable job.

There are also some memorable lines and sequences. When Jeana jabs at her husband and talks about how often he embarrasses her, Doug quips, “You’re well-compensated.” The grilling of Beatriz by Doug regarding her immigration status was a particularly disturbing scene. And when Beatriz speaks of her core beliefs, of how powerful and difficult healing is, how it is a much more challenging thing to do than to hunt and kill, as Doug had been boasting, it’s one of the most potent moments in the movie.

Yet, none of this goes anywhere. The film seems to be satisfied with showing a slice of life dinner party between two classes of people. The climax comes when Beatriz realizes she has a decision to make. Unfortunately, the one she makes, is unworthy of the rest of the movie.

BEATRIZ AT DINNER is exactly what its title implies: it’s a dinner party conversation. And like any get-together over a meal, it has its moments, but if you’re looking for big answers to some of today’s big questions, you won’t find them on the menu.

—END—

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.  

 

 

MEGAN LEAVEY (2017) – Emotional War Tale, But Mostly For Dog Lovers

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I love dogs.

Like other dog owners, I’ve learned over the years that dogs not only provide companionship but contribute an awful lot to the households they live in.  I can’t imagine going through life without the dogs I’ve welcomed into my home.

And that was the main reason I wanted to see MEGAN LEAVEY (2017), a new war drama based on the true story of an American soldier and her bomb sniffing dog on duty on the dangerous desert roads of Iraq.

The other reason I wanted to see this one was Kate Mara.  I like Mara a lot, and I’ve enjoyed most of her movies, although it seems she is still waiting for that breakout role.  And while I don’t believe MEGAN LEAVEY is that movie, it still makes for a worthwhile trip to the theater.

It’s 2001, and Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) lives in New York City with her mom Jackie (Edie Falco) and her step dad Jim (Will Patton).  It is not a good situation, as her mom is about as sensitive to her needs as an acid bath, and when Megan is fired from her job, she hits rock bottom, reeling from both unemployment and the recent death of her best friend.  With nowhere else to go, Megan decides to join the Marines.  At the very least, it will get her away from her family.

Things do not go smoothly at first for Megan in the Marines either, but eventually she finds her niche, and it’s with the Marine’s K9 unit where she bonds with the unit’s most aggressive dog, a German Shepherd named Rex.  He’s so aggressive he’s difficult to train, and Megan is given the chance to train him since she’s the low person on the totem pole. She is able to break through to Rex and reach him in a way no one else had been able to do, and soon they are on missions together where Rex is the most sought after dog because of his superior bomb sniffing abilities.  All is well until Rex misses a bomb, it goes off, and— things change drastically after that.

MEGAN LEAVEY is an emotional movie, especially for dog lovers who understand the bonds formed between people and dogs.  At one point late in the film, Megan says that Rex taught her how to love again.  It’s a statement that on the surface might seem overdramatic, but for people who own dogs, it rings true.  Dogs do possess that ability.

And the dog who plays Rex in this movie nearly steals the show.  His expressions and intuitive eyes should earn him a Best Doggie Actor Nomination.

Kate Mara is excellent as Megan Leavey, which comes as no surprise.  She’s always good. As Megan Leavey, she really brings to light how messed up Megan’s life is at home, and so the audience is easily rooting for her to pull it all together somehow.

And I totally bought her relationship with Rex.  Not sure if I’d call this Mara’s best performance to date, but it’s up there.

Edie Falco also stands out as Megan’s incredibly annoying mother, Jackie. Likewise, Geraldine James makes her Dr. Turbeville just as irritating.  Turbeville is the veterinarian who takes issue with Rex’s aggressiveness and almost forms a personal hatred towards the dog, so much so that she tries to block Megan’s efforts to adopt him later.

Rapper Common does a nice job as the head officer of the K9 unit, Gunny Martin.  He’s tough on Megan, but he also sees promise in her and gives her the break she needs when she is given Rex to train.

Ramon Rodriguez is likable as fellow soldier Matt Morales who becomes Megan’s closest friend in the military, and the two flirt off and on in an on again off again relationship.

Bradley Whitford, who we just saw earlier this year in the horror movie GET OUT (2017) and who’s most famous for his role as Josh Lyman on the TV show WEST WING (1999-2006), plays Megan’s dad Bob.  She doesn’t live with her dad, but she should.  He’s always there for her with solid advice, and he provides a shoulder to cry on.

Will Patton, from the TV show FALLING SKIES (2011-2015), and who’s been in a ton of movies [my favorite being his role as Coach Bill Yoast in REMEMBER THE TITANS (2000)] plays Megan’s step dad Jim, a loser of a man who means well but is such a weak individual he just allows Megan’s mom Jackie to run the show.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite directed MEGAN LEAVEY and does a nice job with it.  The entire film looks good, and the scenes taking place in Iraq possess the necessary edge and suspense.

Is it as powerful as other war movies in recent years, films like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)?  No.  The script simply isn’t as strong, and the story doesn’t resonate as well.

The screenplay by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovested is more interested in Megan Leavey and her personal plight, and how Rex helps her through it, than in a broader portrait of the war in Iraq, and that’s perfectly fine.  The film, after all, is entitled MEGAN LEAVEY.  As such, it’s more a tale of humanity lost and found again than about the plight of dogs and soldiers in the war in Iraq.

It’s also a much more effective movie for folks who love dogs.  If you’re not into dogs, the story might not move you as much, and that’s because if you remove the dog element from the story, what’s left is standard and ordinary.

I liked MEGAN LEAVEY.  To use a baseball analogy, since Megan Leavey is a huge Yankees fan in the film, the movie is not a home run, but it is a solid double, good enough to make its point and tell a satisfying story in the process.

I give this one two and half  doggie biscuits.

—END—

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.  

 

 

 

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.

—END—

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.  

 

 

 

 

THE CIRCLE (2017) – Cautionary Tale Almost Thought-Provoking

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circle

If there’s one fundamental weakness about THE CIRCLE (2017), a story about a young woman’s involvement in a cutting edge social media company that threatens to change life as we know it, it’s that in this day and age where we see technological advances unfold on a seemingly daily basis, the ideas it presents as potentially dangerous and disturbing are already happening.  As such, none of what occurs in THE CIRCLE is all that mind-blowing or insightful.

THE CIRCLE is based on the novel of the same name by Dave Eggers and tells the story of Mae (Emma Watson) whose life is going nowhere as she is stuck in a thankless temp job, until she catches a break when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) who works for the hottest company on the planet, the Circle, gets her an interview there.  The interview goes well and Mae is hired (of course).

The Circle is a social media company run by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) that is all about connecting people across the world, gathering information and data, and doing away with privacy and secrets, all in the name of making the world a better place.  For example, their technology is able to help police locate missing children within minutes.  Bailey promises that politicians and dictators will no longer be able to operate in the shadows.  All decisions will be public and in real-time.

They’re able to do this as they unleash a new technology, miniature cameras that are practically invisible and can be placed everywhere around the world.  Not only do these cameras provide live video feeds but also satellite data of the area.  The Circle utilizes other innovative technologies as well.

At first, Mae is somewhat skeptical as she finds it all a bit much, and she’s also initially put off by the company’s social policy which encourages its workers to remain on “campus” over the weekends and engage in social activities with fellow employees.

But when Annie arranges for Mae’s parents to be on the company’s health care policy, which is a huge deal because Mae’s dad Vinnie (Bill Paxton, in his final film role) suffers from multiple sclerosis and his present insurance covers very little of his treatment, Mae begins to see the company differently.  She rises in the ranks and soon catches the eye of her boss, Mr. Bailey.

Eventually, Mae agrees to take part in a huge cutting edge experiment, where she will be connected online 24/7, inviting the world to join her every minute of every day.

Pardon me for not finding this so “cutting edge.”  Why not?  Because we do it already!  Go anywhere in public on any given day and you’ll see nearly everyone walking around with some sort of smart phone or mobile device.  We’re there already.

And that’s the fundamental problem I had with THE CIRCLE.  The dangers of what its “science fiction” tale are trying to predict are already happening.  The world is already connected.  Privacy is pretty much gone.  Cameras are already everywhere.  Heck, we have a U.S. President who’s addicted to a Twitter account.  In fact, I’d argue that what’s currently happening in real life in terms of our society’s dependency on technology is far scarier than what’s depicted in THE CIRCLE.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t get some things right.  It does.  The point about the Circle wanting its employees to socialize together over the weekends jabs at what many companies do today, viewing the social aspect of its employees nearly as important as the work aspect.  To” old timers” like myself such notions are cringe-worthy. Work is work, not a playground.  In fact, my first thought when Mae is introduced to her co-workers on her first day was that there was no way I’d ever be able to work for a company like the Circle.  It makes STAR TREK’S Starfleet Academy look like boot camp.

The screenplay by director James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers covers a lot of ground but ultimately is too superficial to make much of an impact. In spite of its innovations or maybe because of them, The Circle never felt like a real company to me in this movie. And Mae, a fairly likable character, was never fleshed out enough to be someone I really cared about.

As such, Emma Watson does an okay job as Mae.  She was criticized for her performance as Belle in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) for being too plain and flat, but I thought she caught Belle’s persona rather well.  After all, Belle is bookish and intellectual, and she’s not supposed to be portrayed as a princess type.

I found Watson even less engaging here as Mae, but again, she seems to have been saved by the source material.  After all, one of the points THE CIRCLE is making is that we are all so connected to our technologies that it’s taking away from our real life relationships, and so it’s possible that Mae is supposed to be superficial and shallow.  Either way, she is, and for right or wrong, Watson nails this disengaged personality.  She does come to life for one scene, when her friend Annie gives her the news that her dad will be covered on the company health care policy.  Watson shows some genuine emotion here.  I wish she had done this more often.

As Mae’s friend Annie, Karen Gillan does a nice job.  At first, Gillan makes Annie the go-getting workaholic, but things gradually change as Mae rises in the company, something that Annie sees as a threat.  Throughout the film, Gillan displays more emotion than Watson ever does.  We’ll be seeing Gillan again next week as she reprises her role as Nebula in the Marvel sequel GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017).  She also was in THE BIG SHORT (2015).

Perhaps the strongest performance in the film, and I suppose this should come as no surprise, belongs to Tom Hanks as Circle founder Eamon Bailey.  There’s something genuinely creepy about Bailey, and I think it’s because Hanks plays it straight.  In other words, he doesn’t make Bailey sinister or imbue him with hints of ulterior motives.  He plays him like a syrupy sweet sincere man, like that older uncle who seems for all intents and purposes to be a nice guy but perhaps lingers with that hug a bit too long or looks you in the eye as if he’s seeing through you, and there is just something off-putting about him, although you can’t put your finger on it.  Hanks plays Bailey like this. It’s a subtle, masterful performance.

It was also a bit sad to see Bill Paxton in his final film performance.  He’s excellent, as always, as Mae’s very sick father.  His passing earlier this year made his performance here as the seriously ill Vinnie even more poignant.

Glenne Headly plays Mae’s mom Bonnie, and she’s very good as well.  Headly has made a ton of movies, but I still always remember her for her hilarious role as Janet Colgate in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988) which also starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin.

I thought Ellar Coltrane was ineffective as Mae’s friend Mercer.  He’s supposed to represent the last gasp of humanity, as he shuns social media and constantly laments to Mae that her new way of life is awful and that there is something dreadfully wrong with it.  Unfortunately, nearly everything Mercer says is cliché, and he tends to whine a lot, and so whenever he was on screen I wanted to kick him in the pants.

Likewise John Boyega (Finn in the new STAR WARS movies) was disappointing as Ty, a shadowy figure at the company who befriends Mae and who is always telling her of the dangers of what the company is up to.  The character is just begging for a larger role during the film’s third act, but this never really happens.  Boyega isn’t on-screen enough to have much of an impact in this one.

Director James Ponsoldt does an okay job at the helm, but things could have been better. First off, there’s no sense of pacing.  Suspense never builds, and the film never becomes the type of thriller it could have been.  It’s all rather stoic and plain, and there’s very little emotion to be had.

I had very low expectations for this movie, because I had heard less than flattering things about it, but it wasn’t awful.

Its story about the dangers of social media and invasive technologies is interesting but falls just short of being thought-provoking because these dangers have already come to pass, and so the story seems old hat and as a result more tepid than titillating.  It should have taken things farther.  For instance, what could people with access to this type of technology really do?  I can come up with a few better ideas than just watching one young woman go through her day.  The forces behind the Circle should have been more ambitious, and the stakes much higher.

On the other hand, I wasn’t completely bored.  And I enjoyed the two solid albeit supporting performances by Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton.

In the lead Emma Watson lacks emotion and depth, and she doesn’t really make Mae a person I cared for all that much, but considering the story THE CIRCLE is trying to tell, that may have been the point.

—END—