Film Review: Good Kill (dir by Andrew Niccol)


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Good Kill is an angry film that is somewhat grounded by a strong lead performance from Ethan Hawke.  Hawke was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Boyhood and … well, he probably won’t be nominated for anything for Good Kill.  The film’s coming out too early in the year and it’s not really a crowd-pleasing Oscar movie.  It’s too angry and polemical but still, Ethan Hawke gives an excellent performance.

Hawke plays Thomas Egan, an air force pilot who, after serving 6 tours in Afghanistan, is reassigned to pilot drones from a base in Las Vegas.  For 12 hours a day, Egan sits in a cramped room where he and three other pilots spend their time staring at video monitors and observing people going about their lives on the other side of the world.  Occasionally, a phone rings and they are given orders by a never seen CIA supervisor.  All Egan has to do is push a button and, in just ten seconds, he can blow up a stranger 7,000 miles away.

Of course, it’s not just the targets who get blown up.  Anyone unlucky enough to be standing nearby ends up getting blown up as well, which is something that Egan’s commanding officer (Bruce Greenwood) insists is a regretful but acceptable consequence of fighting the War of Terror.  Except, of course, nobody’s quite sure that they’re actually blowing up terrorists.  Instead, often times, it’s a matter of guesswork.  People are blown up because they could be terrorists, not because they definitely are.

While most of the members of Egan’s unit are unconcerned about the ethics or the legalities of drone warfare, Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) is an exception.  She worries that they’re just creating more terrorists.  (And yet, interestingly enough, she still follows orders whenever she’s told to blow someone up.)  Egan is troubled by the implications of what he’s doing but, for the most part, he keeps his feelings to himself.

From the beginning, the tightly wound Egan struggles with the pressure of being a drone pilot.  After spending half of the day killing strangers who may or may not be terrorists, Egan finds it difficult to spend the rest of the day with his wife (January Jones) and his children.  Slowly but surely, cracks start to appear on Egan’s facade.  He starts drinking.  He drives recklessly.  He yells at his family.  He grows paranoid about the neighbors.  When a cop asks him how the War on Terror is going, Egan smirks and replies that it’s going as well as the War on Drugs…

Even though I agreed, for the most part, with everything that the film had to say, I still found it to be incredibly heavy-handed.  There is something to be said for subtlety and Good Kill is definitely not a subtle movie.  Rabidly anti-military audiences will enjoy having their own prejudices confirmed but, with everyone other than Egan and Vera being portrayed as being bloodthirsty and ignorant, you can be sure that this film won’t change any minds.  Politically, this a political film that’s not going to make a bit of difference.

At the same time, there is an interesting subtext running through the film.  During the 12 hours that Egan spends in that room, he essentially ceases to be a human being and becomes an extension of that drone.  Both literally and figuratively, he becomes a part of the war machine.  Just imagine if a director like David Cronenberg had handled this material.  Director Anrew Niccol briefly touches on the Cronenbergian aspects of the story but, in the end, he gets too bogged down in all of the speeches.

The problem with political films like Good Kill is that they often feel very artificial and that’s why you’re thankful for Ethan Hawke’s performance.  Hawke gives a performance of such raw power that he cuts through all of the polemical bullshit.  The film is nearly smothered under the director’s heavy hand but Hawke breathes it back to life.  Hawke’s performance brings much needed authenticity to Good Kill and, as a result, he elevates the entire film.

International Trailer: Good Kill


Everyone seems to be in agreement that Ethan Hawke is going to get an Oscar nomination next week for his performance in Boyhood.  Everyone also seems to be in agreement that there’s no way anyone other than J.K. Simmons is going to actually win the Oscar for best supporting actor.  But that’s okay.  Whether you’re watching him in Before Midnight or Dead Poets Society or even Sinister, one thing that is always obvious is that Ethan Hawke is a very good actor.  And he will definitely have other opportunities to win an Oscar or two.

He might even get another chance later this year, with the release of Good Kill.  In Good Kill, he plays a drone pilot who spends his day dropping bombs on people on the other side of the world.  As the job starts to take a toll on both his family and his sanity, he wonders whether the “mission” is really worth it.

This film got a lot of attention at the Toronto Film Festival last year and it was there that it was picked up by Voltage Pictures for a 2015 release.  And, just from watching the international trailer that was released yesterday, Good Kill looks exactly like the type of film that’s always more popular with festival goers than it is with mainstream audiences.  The trailer looks heavy-handed, with Bruce Greenwood doing his Bruce Greenwood thing as Hawke’s commanding officer and January Jones looking way too glamorous to play Hawke’s estranged wife.

But, even if the film itself looks like it might have problems, Ethan Hawke’s performance looks impressively intense.  Of course, we won’t know how impressive (or non-impressive, as the case may be) Hawke’s performance actually is until the film itself is released.

Here’s the international trailer for Good Kill!

Review: X-Men: First Class (dir. by Matthew Vaughn)


The name Matthew Vaughn should be familiar with comic book fans everywhere. In 2005, Vaughn was introduced as the director to replace Bryan SInger for the third film in the X-Men franchise. The news was met with some cautious optimism. This was a filmmaker who had quite the loyal and growing following for his work on Stardust and Layer Cake. Months after he was picked my 20th Century Fox news came down that he was backing out of the project due to personal reasons and the film scrambled for a replacement which ended up being Brett Ratner. History was made that day as the beginning of the franchise’s decline began and steep plummet which recently reached it’s nadir with 2009’s Wolverine: Origins.

It’s has now been five years since X-Men: The Last Stand made it to the big-screen and now we have a new film in the franchise. X-Men: First Class has a familiar name behind the director’s seat and it looks like Matthew Vaughn stayed this time around (after directing a smaller superhero film in Kick-Ass for 2010) to craft what could become the best film in the X-Men/Wolverine film franchise. This film is a prequel/reboot of sorts (more on that later) and brings a fresh set of eyes and take on the origin story of this franchise.

X-Men: Last Stand actually begins the film exactly how the first X-Men film began with the 1944 World War II concentration camp setting where a young Erik Lensherr (later to become Magneto) finally manifests his power over magnetic fields as he watches his parents torn from his side. The first film ended that sequence once Erik was knocked out, but this time around it continues with a mysterious man named Schmidt (aka Sebastian Shaw and played with James Bond villainous-flair by Kevin Bacon) taking great interest in Erik and his ability which Erik could only use during bouts of pain and anger. The film continues this slight change in the series’ origins by switching over to Westchester County and into the expansive home of a young Charles Xavier who finds a certain young, blue-skinned shapeshifter named Raven who he invites to stay and become his friend once he realized he wasn’t the only one who was different and with abilities.

These two sequences continue to move the film forward as the we see these two “leaders in the making” adults and trying to find their place in the world of the free-swinging lifestyle and the Cold War culture of the 1960’s. Charles Xavier (played like a well-meaning cad and good-natured naivete about the world by James McAvoy) is a student working on his doctorate in Oxford on genetic theories while his “sister” Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) accompanies him. This is a Xavier who still hasn’t found the patient benevelonce of Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and uses his considerable telepathic abilities to help him pick up on beautiful coeds instead. It’s during such a scene where we see Raven show just a hint of jealousy as Xavier tries his lines and moves on a beautiful British lass. It would seem Raven’s feelings for her ‘brother” may go beyond sibling affection though Xavier doesn’t see her as anything other than a sister for him to protect.

Erik Lensherr’s time as an adult was shown as having become a life of obsession over his treatment at the hands of the Nazi’s and those of Schmidt’s as he travels the world in search of escaped Nazi war criminals. Erik takes him throughout South America as he finds the trail of Nazis hiding out in that region since the end of the war. We see this adult Erik hardened by his anger and single-minded need for revenge on Schmidt and those he worked for. He’s not above using his abilities to kill in order to get the information he requires and there’s a hint of satisfaction when he does kill those he sees as responsible for his tragic upbringing with his magnetic abilities. These two adult sequences continues the film’s theme of the ideological difference between Xavier and Erik being formed through nature and nurture as their lives moved down diverging paths from an early beginning until it convergence for a small, brief period around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The film’s second act begins with Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne), now a covert CIA Agent, investigating a certain Col. Hendry who she suspects as having betrayed the nation to the Soviets, but instead finds out that the true nature of Hendry’s associations were much more insidious and dangerous. The iconic Hellfire Club of the comics finally make their appearance with Schmidt who actually happens to be Sebastian Shaw (whose powers grant him the ability to absorb all kinetic energy which he uses to keep himself young and can release with explosive results), Emma Frost (January Jones) who’s a telepath with the ability to turn body in a sort of diamond-form, Riptide who can create tornado-like abilities and finally the demonic-looking Azazel whose ability to teleport might give people not well-versed in the “X-Men Universe” a clue as to one-half of parents who may be responsible for Nightcrawler in the second film.

X-Men: First Class spends much of this second act like it was Ocean’s 11 as Xavier and Erik get recruited by the CIA to find other mutants and create their own mutant team to counter Sebastian Shaw’s Hellfire Club and his goal of initiating World War III between the US and the USSR and thus destroy all of humanity and leave the planet for the mutants to rule over. Yeah, it is this part of the film’s plot which may strain the suspension of disbelief for some audiences who never grew up reading the comics, but it shouldn’t. Ian Fleming’s James Bond series used scenarios just as ludicrous with villains just as Machiavellian in the form of SPECTRE so X-Men: First Class and it’s world domination plans shouldn’t be too farfetched to fans of that British superspy and his adventures.

This middle section of the film is where X-Men: First Class actually begins to lag after a strong first act. I don’t know if the sequences of the new recruits training, bonding and learning how to use their powers could’ve been written to move much faster without losing some of the character building scenes. From how this second act played it seemed to look like scenes were actually cut out to try and keep the film from being too long (it’s final cut being just a tad over two hours already upon release), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the DVD/Blu-Ray release actually has a director’s or uncut version that actually expands this middle section to really give life to it instead of having it play out like a perfunctory training montage with a dash of character beats.

The film hits it’s action-film stride with the third and final act as Xavier and Erik’s team of young mutants must now use their abilities to stop Shaw and his Hellfire Club and at the same time prevent World War III from beginning and not freaking out the humans who are still unaware of their existence as a whole. It’s this third section which we see too much of it in the trailers and tv spots that one might say we’ve seen it all before we even see the film as a whole, but it still kept back a lot from those ads to make the whole final twenty minutes of the film thrilling and action-packed.

All of this could just mean that X-Men: First Class was just your run-of-the-mill superhero action film that we get on a yearly basis come summertime, but it’s a testament to Matthew Vaughn’s direction and the strength of the script by Vaughn, longtime collaborator Jane Goldman and Thor scribes Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz that the film goes beyond being just an action film with all it’s sturm und drang coupled with fancy special effects. The previous films in the series always explored important cultural and moral themes that’s always been the bread-and-butter of the X-Men stories in the comic books. We just don’t see the film explore the ideological difference between Xavier’s peaceful co-existence between humans and mutants alike, but also we get more detail on why Magneto finally comes to the conclusion that war between humans and mutants was an inevitability and why his stance doesn’t fall under the aegis of being evil, but something that anyone could understand and even support whether one was human or mutant.

The story also doesn’t just pay lip-service to the idea of how mutants view themselves and how even within the mutant community there’s a visible rift between those whose abilities are invisible to the general population and those whose abilities and genetic mutation physically manifest themselves in such ways that to many might not look to appealing. This idea really gets a major exploration in the subplot involving Raven (soon to be Mystique), Hank McCoy and, to a certain degree, Xavier and Erik. We see how those like Xavier whose abilities don’t show in a physical manner have a sort of “don’t ask, don’t show” about those like Raven when it comes to their power when in public.

Raven (played beautifully by Jennifer Lawrence) is caught between Xavier who wants her to remain incognito so as not to shock the world too soon in realizing that mutants exists and that of Erik who sees Raven’s original blue-skinned form as beauty and perfection and how she should never hide who she truly is. This tug and pull between her two mentors makes for a convincing subplot in how Raven comes to the conclusion which would take her to the side of Magneto in later films, but also highlight how the two sides in later films have so much intertwining bonds of friendship and relationship that seeing them against each other becomes a tragedy on its own. Civil wars are not just a thing of humans but those who sees themselves apart from them.

The great performances by most of the leads add to the film’s strength. McAvoy and Fassbender, at first, look to be unconvincing in terms of their appearance as the younger versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, respectively. This becomes a non-issue once they’ve established themselves through their performances which gives new layers to the personalities of Professor X and Magneto. Many people always saw these two as the comic book version of Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, but that’s an oversimplification. The film and the performances by McAvoy and Fassbender digs deeper into both their characters’ motivations and ideologies and how their past experiences and upbringing couple with their time together as brothers-in-arms and friends show more about these two than just being mutant-proxies of MLK and Malcolm X. The other young mutants do an adequate enough job that they don’t seem lost in the film. Nicholas Hoult as the young Hank McCoy and how he plays off Lawrence’s Raven during their little subplot in the film is one stand-out that I hope gets explore even more in any follow-up sequel.

There’s a nice burgeoning young love chemistry between him and Lawrence as Beast and Raven that doesn’t seem too tacked on to create a the prerequisite love couple in any film. Their common trait of having physical mutations and how they seem to both feel apart even from their fellow mutants develop their characters in ways the previous films in the series never did. They never want to rid themselves of their mutant powers. They just want to look normal and still keep their abilities. It’s a having your cake and eat it too mentality that has some surprising results for both Raven and Hank.

X-Men: First Class has had some fans of the series put in a very difficult situation. The film definitely is a prequel to the previous films, but it also does a major time in rewriting continuity in the series. I was one of those fans and thought it would ruin the film in the context of the franchise. I’m surprised that in the end I didn’t really care and actually hope that this film actually is a reboot of the franchise. I see this film and forget the previous three as being part of it. This film was just too good and fun in it the end for continuity issues to become the major flaw that sinks it. I liken this film as similar to Christopher Nolan rebooting the Batman film franchise. That film honored the contributions to the character, but went on it’s own way to tell that character’s tale. I see Vaughn doing the same with this film. He has done something which many thought was a near-impossible task and that’s make the X-Men franchise relevant once more in a pop-culture landscape that seems to have left the franchise behind after the disastrous Wolverine: Origins of 2009.

This film delivered on the ideas that made the comic books so beloved by millions of fans for almost a half-century. It made great use of the 1960’s time and setting to tell a story of these characters beginnings as heroes and villains (though the latter shouldn’t be seen as them being truly just evil bad guys). Even the inclusion of real-world historical event like the Cuban Missile Crisis was a nice touch which gave the film a foundation in realism. Again, this film played off like a superhero, Marvel version of an Iam Fleming James Bond story. For those who are huge fans of the previous films there’s even two brief cameos of those films two favorite characters that appear in this film. They don’t come off as cheesy and unnecessary and actually come off as great additions. I won’t mention who these cameos were but the audience’s reaction to them was very vocal and very positive. I say the same should be said for X-Men: First Class as a film that resuscitates the franchise.

X-Men: First Class (2nd Official Trailer)


Today we saw the release of the second official trailer for the upcoming X-Men prequel/reboot helmed by British director Matthew Vaughn.

X-Men: First Class looks to show the early days when Professor X and Magneto were still friends and allies instead of the adversarial relationship they had in the first three films in the franchise. This new trailer shows more of the characters who will be involved in this film. It also shows the mutants and their powers in action. I must admit that I wasn’t too thrilled with the previous trailers shown about this film, but this latest shows more action and finally reveals it’s summer blockbuster pedigree. The sequence with Magneto lifting the submarine out of the water was really cool.

It’s still not the superhero film this summer that tops my must-see list, but this trailer has put this film in the running as one of the films I must-see.

X-Men: First Class is still slated to have a June 3, 2011 release.

Review: Unknown (dir. by Jaume Collet-Serra)


In 2009 Liam Neeson began a new phase of his career as an actor. Before 2009 he was always put into roles as the father figure and mentor to a younger protagonist. He did quite well in handling these roles. Most of the time he was the only good thing about the films he was in and it was due to how he handled the supporting role given to him. But 2009 changed everything as Liam Neeson arrived on the film scene as a bonafide action hero in his role as a former CIA Special Activities Division operative in the action-thriller, Taken. That film surprised many and Neeson’s badass portrayal of a father out to save his daughter opened the eyes of many filmgoers who always saw him as the calm, wise elder. He has taken on the mantle of older, action-hero characters from Harrison Ford who lived off and became rich doing roles such as the one in Taken.

Two years later we have another film where we get to see Liam Neeson in another role which cements his place in the action-hero pantheon. Also like Pierre Morel’s film, this one takes place in Europe and directed by another European filmmaker trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood, Jaume Collet-Serra. It would be disingenious to say that Collet-Serra had it in him to direct a film as tight and fast-moving as Unknown. His two Hollywood productions were the remake of the classic horror film, House of Wax, and the underappreciated horror film from 2009, Orphan. With this new action-thriller, Unknown, Collet-Serra and Neeson create a film which owes much of its film dna to Hitchcock and his mistaken-man classic, North by Northwest. I would also say that this film also owes much of its action and characters to one of the early 1990’s best sci-fi action films, Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall.

The film begins with Neeson’s character, Dr. Martin Harris, and his wife Liz (played by Mad Men‘s January Jones) arriving in Berlin to attend a biomedical conference. Right from the start Neeson makes us believe in Harris being an everyman. The good professor doesn’t seem the alpha male-type. But after certain seemingly random circumstances and events puts Harris in a coma for four days we begin to see signs and glimpses that Neeson’s character may have more to him than meets the eye.

It’s when Harris’ awakens from his coma that the meat of the film’s story begins. We know going in that Neeson’s character knows he’s not crazy and that someone out there has made things appear as if he is becoming insane. Maybe the accident in the beginning of the film have given us a false perspective on the film. What we might be seeing could be a manifestation of Harris’ mental breakdown from the accident and subsequent coma. But little clues in the film’s dialogue keeps things vague, but not so much that our initial stance that Harris’ is being manipulated won’t be the final endgame.

It is the endgame in the film which may make or break the whole production for some people. The screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cromwell is not the strongest out there and it tries to be too complex with its red herrings when trying to keep it simple would’ve sufficed. One could almost sense that the two writers were trying to be too Hitchcock that they lost sight of how Hitchcock’s films were simple affairs which only appeared to be complex. Yet, despite some necessary leaps of logic that audiences needed to make to continue believing in the film, Unknown manages to keep the core story moving forward to it’s inevitable conclusion.

The performances by everyone involved is what keeps this film from spiralling out of Collet-Serra’s capable hands. One would almost certainly point out the strong work by Neeson as the Harris. January Jones’ Liz Harris, at first, seemed like an extension of her Betty Draper character from Mad Men, but as the story moves forward we get to see more layers of personalities in her character to make her interesting beyond the dutiful and supportive wife. But the standout performance outside of Neeson has to go to Diane Kruger as Gina, the taxi driver who was involved in Neeson’s character getting in his accident in the beginning of the film.

Kruger arguably is one of Hollywood’s classic beauty, but she has an ability to actually keep that beauty in check with her acting that we believe her to be the “everywoman” in some of the roles she plays. Beauty doesn’t come into the Gina character’s personality. Kruger does a great job of playing the pawn in a much larger game being played on Neeson’s character. Her reluctance to help him gradually crumbles as she soon realizes that her own safety and survival is now inextricably linked to unraveling the mystery of who Martin Harris really is.

Unknown is one of those films that actually has an advantage being released in the so-called dead season which runs from January and into March. It’s a film season when studios put out films they have no faith in being a major blockbuster which means summer and Holiday season release are out. It’s not prestigious enough to be put out in the Fall and early Winter. But as a piece os well-done escapist fare it’s perfect for this so-called dead season. Jaume Collet-Serra has shown that even when working from an average screenplay he knows how to get the best out of his cast to sell the film to the audience. He also has a firm grasped on pacing and how to handle action sequences.

In the end, the film still loves or dies by how the audience reacts to Liam Neeson’s character. While his Martin Harris is not the Bryan Mills from Taken, by the time the final scene fades to black we begin to see how similar the two characters really are and how much they share. Until the big name films start dropping in beginning in March (blockbuster season seem to come earlier and earlier with each passing year), Unknown is one of those films that should help make this early months of the film season more entertaining than it usually is in year’s past.

As an aside, for those who know their films would understand why I say that, in addition to this film having aspirations of being Hitchcockian, Unknown definitely borrows or has been influenced by some of the story and character developments of Verhoeven’s Total Recall. I almost half-expected for a half-mutant seer named Kuato to make an appearance to explain it all to Neeson’s ccharacter.

X-Men: First Class Official Trailer


Of all the Marvel Comic book films coming out this summer it is the one not being made by Marvel themselves which seems to be getting the biggest amount of negative press and buzz from the fans. The last couple weeks has seen pictures from the set either leaked by accident or on purpose to gauge fan reaction. To say that reaction has been underwhelming would be an understatement.

The film is 20th Century Fox Studios latest film on the X-Men franchise. A franchise which is now batting 2-for-4. The first two films in the franchise were thought of as being very good to great and the last two seen as a major mess or just plain awful. Now the fifth film has just released it’s first official trailer and from the look of things it looks to be retconning all the vents which occurred in the first four films. The scenes used for the trailer looked very good and the looks of the many (people complaining about the amount of characters in the third Nolan/Batman film will be apoplectic once they see First Class) characters gives me some hope.

The film has Matthew Vaughn just fresh off of Kick-Ass and it will be up to him to create a gem out of the rough stone people seem to be judging the film at the moment. X-Men: First Class is set for a June 3, 2011 release.