BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

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BEIRUT_poster

BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

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Riveting Western HOSTILES (2017) Earns Its Title

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Rosamund Pike and Christian Bale share the danger in HOSTILES (2017).

HOSTILES (2017), the new western adventure by writer/director Scott Cooper, is anchored by a solid performance by Christian Bale as a hardened cavalry officer ordered to escort an aged and ill Cheyenne chief on a dangerous trek from New Mexico to Montana, a chief who was once responsible for the deaths of many of the officer’s men.

HOSTILES opens with a brutal attack on a family by a group of Comanches that leaves a father and three children dead.  The mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) manages to escape but not before seeing  her entire family, including her infant, slain.  The action switches to Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) receiving orders that he must provide safe passage for an ailing Cheyenne chief, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to his home land in Montana.  Blocker wants no part of this mission because he knows firsthand the merciless carnage which Chief Yellow Hawk once caused, but as his superior officer Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) reminds him, Blocker is no saint himself.

A career soldier and months away from retirement and a pension, Blocker reluctantly agrees to follow his orders.  Soon after Blocker, his men, and Chief Yellow Hawk embark on their journey, they come across and rescue Rosalie Quaid but realize the deadly Comanches are still on the prowl, putting everyone, including Chief Yellow Hawk and his family, in danger.  And the murderous Comanches are only one of the threats which Captain Blocker and his party must face on their increasingly treacherous trek to Montana, all of which provide for a very dark and thrilling western adventure.

If you like westerns, you definitely want to see HOSTILES.  Writer/director Scott Cooper, whose previous films include BLACK MASS (2015) and OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), the latter also starring Christian Bale and one of my favorite movies that year, has made a tense, compelling drama that hooks you from the get-go with its savage opening scene and then pretty much never lets go. Sure, not everything works— Blocker’s story arc is a bit too neat and tidy at times— but enough of it does to make this movie a must-see trip to the theater.

Christian Bale is rock solid as Captain Blocker, a weathered military officer who has seen his share of deplorable acts of horror and has committed them as well, which he justifies because it’s his job to kill.  Bale brings the necessary intensity to the role, as well as the scars and pains which are apparent in his eyes throughout.  It’s a very satisfying performance, and I enjoyed Bale more here than in the previous two films I saw him in, THE BIG SHORT (2015) and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013).

Bale is phenomenal, and he’s not alone.  HOSTILES boast a very strong cast.  Rosamund Pike is nearly as good as Bale here as the bereaved yet strong spirited Rosalie Quaid.  She is every bit as locked into her performance as Bale, and the two share an uneasy chemistry, brought together by tragedies in their past and their present.

Veteran actor Wes Studi, who I most remember for his powerful performance as Magua in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992) is sufficiently noble as Chief Yellow Hawk.  Jesse Plemons, who seems to be showing up everywhere these days and who stood out as Todd in the final season of BREAKING BAD (2012-2013), plays Lt. Rudy Kidder, a soldier on Blocker’s team with a solid resume but little experience in the field. And we just saw Plemons in THE POST (2017).

Rory Cochrane delivers a strong performance as well as Sgt. Thomas Metz, Blocker’s longtime military buddy and right hand man.  Stephen Lang, most recently seen as the blind man in the thriller DON’T BREATHE (2016) has a small role as Col. Abraham Biggs, the man who gives Blocker his controversial orders.  And Bill Camp, who also had a memorable small role in MOLLY’S GAME (2017) as a doomed poker player, is memorable once again in another small bit, this time as an annoying newspaper reporter.

Timothee Chalamet has a brief role as a young private.  Chalamet was impressive as one of Lady Bird’s boyfriends in LADY BIRD (2017), and he’s also receiving praise for his role in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017).

Fans of THE WALKING DEAD will be happy to see Scott Wilson ride in as an angry land owner.  Wilson played Hershel on THE WALKING DEAD for a few seasons.  Of course, Wilson is known for much more than THE WALKING DEAD, as his career goes all the way back to IN COLD BLOOD (1967).

And Ben Foster even shows up as a military prisoner on death row who claims he’s no more dangerous than Blocker and that he’s seen Blocker do far worse things than he ever did. Foster is fine here, but he’s played this type of role before.  A lot.

Foster and Bale previously starred together in another western, 3:10 TO YUMA (2007), another hard-hitting action tale where Bale played the hero and Foster a loose cannon bad guy.

Scott Cooper’s screenplay, based on an unpublished manuscript by Donald E. Stewart, is a good one.  It tells a riveting story that held my interest throughout and it features characters even those in minor roles who are fleshed out adequately.

And Cooper is just as successful behind the camera.  The picturesque shots of New Mexico and Montana are reminiscent of the great western vistas captured by legendary directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks.  The action scenes are intense and suspenseful and provide some edge of your seat moments.

The first half of the movie admittedly plays better than the second half, when Blocker and company are dealing with the Comanches.  What follows, while interesting, never captures the same intensity as these early scenes, although the ending is powerfully tragic.

And the very ending, the final shot of the film, is as cinematic as they come, and could easily be destined as one of those closing shots that people long remember.

I loved HOSTILES.  It easily hearkens back to the classic westerns of yesteryear, films like STAGECOACH (1939), THE SEARCHERS (1956),  and Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN (1992). Yet it also possesses a dark edge that makes it every bit as gripping as a contemporary thriller.

You’ll easily understand why this one is called HOSTILES, an understanding that won’t stop you from enjoying this extremely satisfying film.

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GONE GIRL (2014) – Exceptional Adult Thriller

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Gone-Girl-2014-film-posterMovie Review: GONE GIRL (2014)

By Michael Arruda

I had originally planned to review GONE GIRL solo for Cinema Knife Fight and post the review here on this blog as well, but then L.L. Soares decided he’d like to see the movie too, since he’s a big fan of director David Fincher, and so we reviewed the movie as a Cinema Knife Fight column, which will be posted this weekend.

However, I had penciled in today’s date as the time I would post the GONE GIRL review on this blog.  To honor that schedule, and to avoid spoiling our Cinema Knife Fight column, I’ve decided to post an abbreviated review of GONE GIRL.

Be sure to check out the more extensive review after midnight on Sunday October 12 at cinemaknifight.com.

GONE GIRL is director David Fincher’s latest movie, the story of a man whose wife disappears under suspicious circumstances, and as a result, he becomes the prime suspect in the crime.

The movie opens with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) visiting his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) at The Bar, a bar which the two of them own, and over a drink they commiserate over Nick’s wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), so right off the bat we get the sense that all is not well with Nick and his wife.

When Nick returns home, he finds that his wife is not there, and there’s a glass table that has been knocked over and shattered, and it’s just weird enough to raise a red flag. Nick calls the police, and responding to the call are Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit).  When they discover traces of blood at the scene, Boney calls in her crime unit, and when word gets out that Amy has disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and Nick seems to be overly relaxed in front of the media, the accusations begin to fly.

The question on everyone’s mind is: where is Amy Dunne, and did Nick kill her or didn’t he?  And that’s as far as I want to go in discussing the plot, because the less said about the plot of GONE GIRL the better.

Ben Affleck is very good here as Nick Dunne in an understated performance. Affleck portrays Nick as man who doesn’t always react in the way others think he should, and it’s difficult to gauge whether he’s being manipulative or simply boneheaded.  As a result, he’s always on the defensive, and the media eats him alive.

The best performance in the movie belongs to Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne. I’ve seen Pike in other movies, but this might be my favorite role of hers so far.  Pike makes Amy an even more complicated and intricate character than her husband.  They are one of the more intriguing movie couples I’ve seen in a while.

Nearly as good as Affleck and Dunne is Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo. Margo is the one who seems to have a level head on her shoulders, and she is constantly trying to help her brother, but it’s a frustrating and losing battle as she’s out of her league when dealing with the likes of Amy and her brother.  Coon is terrific in the role.

Kim Dickens makes Detective Rhonda Boney a refreshingly smart character not bound by the clichés of the police detectives in the movies. She actually shows a lot of restraint when the media has already tried and convicted Nick, but she refuses to arrest him until she finds more evidence.

One of the best things about GONE GIRL is that three of the best characters in the movie, in terms of acting and writing, are women.  This doesn’t happen in the movies very often.

Tyler Perry makes his mark as hotshot defense attorney Tanner Bolt, and like Detective Boney, Attorney Bolt is not your typical cliché movie lawyer. He finds the whole story of Nick and Amy fascinating and seems entertained by the whole ordeal, and while he continually gives Nick solid and truthful counsel, you get the feeling he’d rather be booking his client on an episode of Dr. Phil.

Neil Patrick Harris plays Desi Collings, a man from Amy’s past, who she once accused of stalking her. He plays a key role in the story, and Harris does a nice job making him weird and sad at the same time.

GONE GIRL is an exceptionally well-made movie by director David Fincher.  He’s made a lot of movies, and GONE GIRL ranks near the top.

Fincher also serves as Executive Producer to the hit TV show HOUSE OF CARDS on Netflix, and I saw some similarities between the powerful political couple on HOUSE OF CARDS played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and Nick and Amy in this movie.  They’re obviously quite different characters in terms of personalities and social status, but they both share an almost pathological obsession with their mates which transcend the usual boundaries for husbands and wives in television and the movies.  Nick and Amy are like Francis and Claire Underwood without the political ambitions and with more time on their hands.

GONE GIRL is a very dark movie that will make you feel like you need a shower to wash off the grime once you leave the theater.  There is one very shocking brutal scene that is more disturbing than the majority of “shock” scenes usually found in the traditional Hollywood horror movie.

The film boasts an excellent screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel of the same name. The characters are fleshed out, and even better, the plot is refreshingly original and keeps you guessing all the way to the end.

 GONE GIRL is an intensely satisfying movie that works on nearly every level, and if you prefer dark movies, you’ll especially love this one.

—Remember to check out the full Cinema Knife Fight review at cinemanknifefight.com this weekend!—

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