Film Review: 12 Strong (dir by Nicolai Fuglsig)


12 Strong begins with a montage of terror.

The World Trade Center is bombed in 1993.  Planes are bombed.  Ships are attacked.  Bill Clinton gives a speech in which he impotently condemns Al-Qaeda.  Finally, we reach September 11th, 2001.  Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is playing with his daughter when she suddenly looks up at the TV behind him.  “Look, Daddy,” she says.  Nelson turns around and sees The World Trade Center on fire.

Even though he’s recently announced his intention to retire, Nelson reports for duty.  Despite the skepticism of his commanding officer (Rob Riggle), Nelson and 11 others are sent into Afghanistan.  Their mission is to meet up with a warlord named Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) and to capture territory from the Taliban.  Nelson is initially given 6 weeks to complete this task.  Nelson replies that he’ll get it done in three, before the harsh Afghan winter makes it impossible to move through the mountains.

Among the actors who make up Nelson’s team: Michael Shannon, Trevante Rhodes, Austin Stowell, and Geoff Stults.  Fortunately, the cast is made up of familiar faces.  Even though you might not learn everyone’s name, you still feel as if you know them because you’ve seen all of them playing similar roles in other movies.  (After his performance in Moonlight, it’s a bit disappointing to see Trevante Rhodes playing such a minor supporting role in his follow-up but still, he’s a charismatic actor and he has enough screen presence that he definitely makes an impression.)  Somewhat inevitably, Michael Pena plays the funny member of the team.  It’s not a 21st century action film without Michael Pena providing comedic relief.

(That’s actually a little unfair to Michael Pena, who is a good actor and who gives a pretty good performance in 12 Strong.  It’s just that he’s played this role so many times that it’s almost become a cliché that every action movie will feature Micheal Pena making jokes.)

When the team first meets up with Dostum, there’s immediate tension between the supposed allies.  As Dostum puts it, the United States only cares about getting rid of the Taliban but they don’t care about what will happen afterward.  When Dostum looks at Nelson, he immediately announces that Nelson does not have killer eyes.  Everyone else on the team has killer eyes but not Nelson.  Dostum and his men are even less impressed when they see the Americans struggling to ride the horses that are required to get through the mountains.  Will Nelson win Dostum’s respect?  Will he develop the eyes of a killer?

You probably already know the answer to that.  There’s really not a single moment in 12 Strong that you won’t see coming.  As soon as Dostum says that Nelson needs to prove himself in battle, you know that he’ll get a chance to do just that.  As soon as another soldier talks about home, you know that he’s going to be seriously wounded.  When you first spot the child soldiers among Dostum’s forces and you see one of them give Nelson a nervous smile, you know that child’s probably going to be one of the first casualties of the attack.

12 Strong is a predictable movie but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad one.  It’s a well-made film, with the cast all giving strong performances and director Nicolai Fuglsig doing a good job with the battle scenes.  My heart was racing during the film’s final battle.  New Mexico doubled for Afghanistan and the film features some truly stunning shots of the mountainous landscape.  The film even makes a point about why, after 17 years, there still doesn’t appear to be any end in sight to the War in Afghanistan.

Clocking in at 2 hours and 9 minutes, 12 Strong is probably about thirty minutes too long.  It’s a predictable movie but it’s well-made and the fact that it’s based on a true story does make it a bit more poignant than it would be otherwise.  It’s not a bad war film, particularly for January.

Film Review: War on Everyone (dir by John Michael McDonagh)


war_on_everyone

War on Everyone opens with a question.

“If you hit a mime,” Detective Bob Bolano (Michael Pena) asks, “does he make a sound?”

“Now, you know,” Detective Terry Malone (Alexander Skarsgard) replies, as he drives his car over a mime.

For the record, the Mime was a cocaine dealer so the detectives did have a reason for chasing him.  Then again, the Mime was also on foot while the detectives were in a car.  And the Mime was attempting to surrender when the detectives ran him over.

That scene pretty much sets the tone for the rest of War on Everyone, the latest film from Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh.  McDonagh is best-known and rightfully acclaimed for his previous two films, The Guard and Calvary.  Those two films were both darkly comedic and often violent meditations on life, death, morality, guilt, and redemption.  While War on Everyone may not share either one of those films’ deeper concerns, it is definitely violent.  And the comedy is definitely dark.

Bob and Terry are two of the most corrupt cops in the history of cinematic police corruption.  Bob is a family man, who is full of useless trivia and usually seems to speaking a mile a minute.  Terry is single and not quite as talkative.  He views the world through permanently bloodshot eyes and always stands with an insolent slouch.  Terry is the type who, when he drives down a city street, intentionally bumps into every parked car.  When asked why he became a cop, Terry shrugs and replies that it was the only job available where he could shoot people without getting in trouble.  When Bob and Terry confront an informant, they both get so caught up in snorting the informant’s cocaine that they forget what they wanted to ask about.  Their lieutenant is constantly telling them to ease up on the corruption but, since he’s played by Paul Reiser, no one takes him seriously.

War on Everyone does have a plot but it’s debatable just how important it is.  Bob and Terry learn about an up-coming heist.  They decide to let the heist happen so that they can then bust the crooks and take the money for themselves.  However, because there’s nothing that Bob and Terry can’t screw up, they not only fail to stop the heist but end up spending the rest of the movie trying to track down the money.  Along the way, they bond with an orphan and Terry pursues a romance with a former stripper (Tessa Thompson, doing her best with an underwritten role).

The plot is really just an excuse for McDonagh to parody the conventions of the American cop film.  Much like Seven Psychopaths (which was directed by John Michael McDonagh’s older brother, Martin), War on Everyone is a film about tangents.  The point is to see how many weird directions the story can go in.  This is the type of film where, at one point, Terry and Bob fly to Iceland just because.

(Don’t get me wrong.  They have a reason for being in Iceland but still, you mostly come away with the feeling that McDonagh thought to himself, “What other New Mexico-set heist film features a trip to Iceland?”)

Particularly when compared to something like Calvary, War on Everyone doesn’t add up to much and yet that really is a part of the film’s charm.  At a time when so many films are trying way too hard to be something more than what they actually are, War on Everyone is content to be a thoroughly over-the-top action comedy.  It’s a bit like The Nice Guys, just with an even darker worldview.

What’s remarkable is how many critics have insisted in trying to find a deeper meaning where there clearly is none.  I hardly ever do this but I have to point out that the A.V. Club review — headlined, undoubtedly by an intern hoping to impress the bosses with the power of snark, Sorry War On Everyone, but it’s not the best time for a comedy about giddily corrupt cops — is remarkable in just how thoroughly it misses the point of the film.  If anything, it reads as if the reviewer couldn’t think of anything to say so he decided to engage in some preemptive political virtue signaling.

The review cited above makes the mistake of assuming that War on Everyone is supposed to be taking place in the real world.  Everything — from the over-the-top violence to the mix of crude humor with philosophical asides to the mix of 70s music with modern technology — indicates that War on Everyone is meant to take place in a reality other than our own.  It’s a dream-like world that was created by other cop movies and, ultimately, those other movies are the only thing that War on Everyone is attempting to critique.  In much the style of early Tarantino, War On Everyone is a movie about movies.

(Unlike Tarantino’s last few films, War on Everyone only lasts 98 minutes, which would seem to indicate that McDonagh is superior to Tarantino in one important regard: he knows how and when to edit himself.)

War on Everyone is not for … well, everyone.  It’s certainly not a masterpiece in the style of either The Guard or Calvary.  It’s lesser McDonagh but, when taken on its own terms, it’s an enjoyable ramble of a movie that’s distinguished by the perfect casting of Skarsgard, Pena, and Reiser.

Just don’t take it too seriously.

 

A Few Thoughts On The Martian…


The_Martian_film_poster

I’m a few weeks late in reviewing The Martian, largely because I was on vacation when it was first released.  When I finally did see The Martian, it was at the wonderful UEC theater in beautiful Russellville, Arkansas.  As opposed to my experience when I saw The Green Inferno, the theater was packed and, throughout the entire movie, it was obvious that the audience absolutely loved what they were seeing on screen.  They laughed, they applauded, and it was obvious they had a great time with the movie.

And why not?  After the commercial failures of both The Counselor and Exodus, it’s obvious that director Ridley Scott was not going to take any chances with The Martian.  There’s not a single scene that is not specifically calculated to keep the viewer as complacently satisfied as possible.  Telling the story of how botanist Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) gets stranded on Mars and must figure out a way to survive until he can be rescued, The Martian is such a positive film that its total lack of cynicism almost gets overwhelming.  The end result is a film that is a 100 times better than Exodus but never as interesting or challenging as The Counselor.

In fact, as I watched The Martian, I kept thinking about another film about a man stranded out in the middle of nowhere, Into The Wild.  The main character in Into The Wild spent his isolation contemplating the meaning of life and finally reaching some sort of spiritual peace before starving to death.  Mark Whatney, on the other hand, spends his isolation recording a snarky video diary and listening to classic disco songs.

And, before anyone gets offended or accuses me of being a film snob, allow me to say that I enjoyed The Martian.  I thought it was an entertaining movie and I especially loved the soundtrack.  But, at the same time, one can enjoy The Martian and still acknowledge that there’s not much going on underneath the crowd-pleasing surface.

Looking back on the film, I find it remarkable just how little we learn about Mark Whatney.  We hear at one point that he has a family but we really don’t learn anything about his life on Earth.  In a way, he’s a bit like Robert Redford in All Is Lost.  Except, of course, Mark Whatney talks.  He talks a lot.  Fortunately, Mark is played by Matt Damon, who is a great talker.  If I think that The Martian is entertaining but also a bit overrated (and I do), I also think that Matt Damon deserves every bit of praise that he’s received for his performance.

Interestingly enough, The Martian not only features Matt Damon’s best performance but it also features Jessica Chastain’s worst.  Chastain plays Commander Lewis, who is in charge of the Mars expedition and who take it upon herself to bring Mark Whatney home.  And really, this should have been a great role for Jessica Chastain but, for the first time that I can remember, she gives a performance that just isn’t that interesting.

Then again, there’s really only one interesting character in the entire film and that’s Mark Whatney  (though I would have liked to learn more about the astronomer played by Donald Glover, who gives an appealingly eccentric performance).  This is Matt Damon’s film and it’s best moments are the ones where Mark deals with life on Mars.  In fact, there’s a part of me that almost wishes the majority of the NASA scenes had been left on the editing room floor and almost the entire movie had just been Matt Damon on Mars.

In the end, I did enjoy The Martian.  It’s a good film that some people are insisting was great.  (Of course, a lot of that is because it’s trendy to be into science.  Fortunately, Mark Whatney isn’t as much of a pompous blowhard as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, nor is he as creepy as Bill Nye.)  Some people are even suggesting that The Martian is the new Oscar front runner and maybe it is.  (After all, it’s not like there was much going on below the surface of Birdman either.)

But for me, in the years to come, the main thing I’ll remember about The Martian is the totally kickass soundtrack…

 

Film Review: Vacation (dir by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley)


Vacation_poster

Oh, what sweet Hell is this?

I have definitely seen worse movies than Vacation but it’s hard to think of one that left me as annoyed.  As I watched this movie, I found myself wondering how anyone could have made as many wrong decisions while directing one comedy.  Then I remembered that this film had two directors and I was left even more annoyed.  Seriously, couldn’t one of these two credited directors look at the footage and say, “Wow, we’re making a really crappy, unfunny, and mean-spirited comedy.  Maybe we should reconsider the tone of some of these scenes.  Maybe we should just abandon this all together…”

This film is a reboot of the old Vacation movies that Chevy Chase used to make in the 80s and 90s.  (Christmas Vacation is the one that everyone loves but there were others as well.)  In the original Vacation movies, Chase played Clark Griswold.  Clark would always try to take his family on the perfect vacation and would slowly lose his mind as his best laid plans always crashed into a wall of chaotic reality.  The original Vacation films were all uneven but likable, largely because Clark seemed to be so sincere in his madness.

In Vacation, Ed Helms plays Clark’s son, Rusty Griswold.  Rusty is all grown up and living in the suburbs.  He has a job as a pilot for a cheap airline.  He’s married to Debbie (Christina Applegate), who was known as Debbie Do Anything in college.  He has two sons and they’re both annoying.  James (Skyler Gisondo) is overly sensitive and plays guitar.  Kevin (Steele Stebbins) is a psychopath who is constantly bullying his older brother and dropping F-bombs every chance he gets.  (A little kid saying “Fuck,” is only funny the first few times you hear it.  After the 20th time, it just gets boring.)  James sings self-pitying songs.  Kevin continually tries to murder his brother by putting a plastic bag over his head.

Rusty wants to take his family to Walley World, the same destination that Clark wanted to visit in the original Vacation.  This involves driving across the country in an Albanian car that’s always on the verge of exploding.  Along the way, they stop off at various locations and have adventures.

And not all of the adventures are bad.  Occasionally, the film is saved by a funny cameo.  Charlie Day shows up as a suicidal river guide and he’s genuinely funny.  You find yourself wishing that he had a bigger role.  And then there’s a scene where Rusty and Debbie attempt to have sex at the Four Corners and are caught by cops from four different states, all of whom promptly start to argue about who has jurisdiction.

But those scenes are the exception.  For the most part, Vacation is just a parade of uninspired scatological humor and missed opportunities.  When Rusty and the family drop in on his sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her well-endowed husband, Stone (Chris Hemsworth), Rusty spends a lot of time talking about how Audrey and Stone are politically conservative.  Once they arrive at Audrey’s home, we are shown a picture of Stone hanging out with Charlton Heston but, otherwise, Stone and Rusty’s political differences are never mentioned again.  And don’t get me wrong — I wasn’t particularly looking forward to having to sit through a political argument between Ed Helms and Chris Hemsworth.  But still, why set up a joke if you’re too lazy to include the punch line?

Of course, the main problem is that you just don’t care about these Griswolds.  As characters, they’re all pretty unlikable and therefore, you really don’t care if their vacation is a success or not.  Poor Christina Applegate!  After holding her own against Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner in both Anchorman films, she’s given nothing to do here, beyond being the punchline in a few misogynistic jokes about being wild before marrying Rusty.

As weak as all the characters are, Rusty is the main problem.  He can’t handle the fact that his wife has had more sexual partners than he has.  He can’t discipline his youngest demon child.  He has absolutely no good advice to give to his oldest son.  When Rusty drags them across the country to Walley World, it’s not because he wants them to have a good vacation but because he wants to recreate a memory from his childhood.  If Chevy Chase’s Clark was always unhinged but sincere, Rusty Griswold is just an asshole and it’s impossible to care about him.  It doesn’t help that Ed Helms, as talented as he may be, has a neediness to him that can be amazingly off-putting whenever he’s cast in a lead role.  He always seems to be trying way too hard to convince the audience to love him.

Incidentally, Rusty and the family do make time to visit Grandpa Clark.  Chevy Chase looks even worse than he did on Community and it’s all pretty boring.

My advice would be to take a vacation from seeing Vacation.

Scenes I Love: Observe and Report


Michael Peña was, for me, a major highlight in the recent Marvel Studios film, Ant-Man. His role as Scott Lang’s former cellmate and buddy once out of San Quentin was the linchpin of the film’s comedy side. Michael Peña has had quite a string of very good work on the dramatic side of things (End Of Watch and Fury), yet he has also done some great comedic work.

One great comedic turn comes from the little-seen, but very funny dark comedy, Observe and Report. This film has earned a negative reputation due to one scene between Seth Rogen’s character and that of Anna Faris. But that’s a scene that doesn’t bring me back time and time again to watch this cult classic in the making.

Michael Peña’s character is a fellow shopping mall security guard by the name of Dennis Shavante and he’s sort of the right hand man to Seth Rogen’s bipolar Ronnie Barnhardt who also happens to be a fellow security guard. Peña’s scene in the middle of the film right before he takes Ronnie under his wing was one of the funnier monologues I’ve watched on the big-screen in many years. The follow-up postcard narration later in the film just became the icing on that monologue’s cake.

Here’s the postcard monologue to make it easier to understand one Dennis Shavante.

Dennis Shavante: Whatsup mo’fackle? How’s your dick hanging? Low I hope. I just wanted to write you and say that, you know I really am sorry for the way shit like went down and stuff, my bad, my blunder. I just wanted you to know that you really are my best friend. Problem is I’m a criminal man who doesn’t care and your crime is… you care too much. Regardless of our differences, I hope you know that I always respected you. It’s not every day that you meet someone who stands for something in this world. Anyway, no hard feelings okay, but if you ever want to party, just get your ass to Mexico, the beers are cool and the girls are wet.

Sincerely, your right hand man,

Love, Dennis Shavante.

Quick Review: Marvel’s Ant-Man (dir. by Peyton Reed)


Marvel's Ant-Man

*** Wait a minute! Before checking this out, be sure to read TrashFilmGuru’s thoughts on Ant-Man and then if you like, double back here. Two opinions are better than one! ***

I walked into Ant Man with a bias.

As a fan of Edgar Wright, his departure on the film due to creative differences left me wondering if it was worth seeing. Mix that with the idea that Marvel diverged from the character’s comic book origins for a better fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it all seemed like a recipe for failure. This was going to be the Cars 2 of the MCU, I was sure of it.

Ant-Man isn’t as large a tale as Captain America: The First Avenger or as star spanning as Guardians of the Galaxy. At times, it feels like it the story would be better suited for an extended Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Crossover or a Netflix one shot instead of a big screen event. It actually reminded me of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man in many ways, back when all of this was so small that audiences weren’t searching for tie-ins to next film in the line up or homages to The Story So Far. Ant-Man comes with the MCU connections (and comic book ones too), but if you walk in expecting revelations as big as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the film may be a disappointment. It’s just a hero, and idea that even small actions can have big effects. It’s easily the film’s greatest strength, that it’s so personal. The film’s best components are it’s casting (particularly in House of Cards & The Strain’s Corey Stoll and Fury’s Michael Pena), and the effects themselves. It’s a movie that’s well worth the 3D treatment, if you can catch it that way.

Ant-Man focuses on Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a former thief who is just trying to spend more time with his daughter, or at least be a hero in her eyes. Scott ends up meeting with Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) who brings him on board for a job that just happens to cover his particular skill set. The job comes with a special suit that allows Lang to shrink down to about the size of an Ant, while at the same time allowing him to be much stronger. When Pym’s protege and rival Cross (Stoll) discovers another way to possibly make the shrink ability work, it’s up to Lang to try to stop the progress.

The film had 4 writers during it’s creation. It had Edgar Wright, who many moviegoers know from the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Adam McKay worked with Rudd in the past on the Anchorman films, and was responsible for Talladega Nights & Step Brothers. Both McKay and Rudd had a hand in writing Ant-Man. Finally, Attack the Block’s Joe Cornish was on board. The end result of all this is a film with a great deal of comedy influences in it, though not all of them hit the mark. I felt there were at least 2 moments in the film where Rudd’s character had a one liner that just didn’t hit the mark, or elicit a response from the audience. This isn’t a terrible thing, at most it’s just nitpicking. Overall, you could consider Ant-Man a comic caper with superhero moments.

Additionally, the writers had to also figure out how to make the character of Dr. Hank Pym useful in a storyline where one of his biggest arcs in the comics – creating Ultron – was already handled in a previous story. I like to think this was handled pretty well, as comic readers will already recognize Scott Lang as being the 2nd Ant-Man – or least this is what I learned from the Marvel Encyclopedia. They’ve managed to keep familiar storylines in place while still anchoring it to the larger tale at hand.

The performances in Ant-Man are good, though it’s the co-stars that potentially steal the film from the leads. Lang’s heist buddies, played by David Dastmalchian (The Dark Knight), Cliff “T.I.” Harris (Takers), and Michael Pena (Fury) were indeed funny in this. Pena in particular stood out as someone who gets ahold of information through some pretty wild sources. Michael Douglas was a strange pick for me when I first heard about it, but he’s actually a fantastic fit for the whole story. Evangeline Lilly looked like she had a lot of fun with this, though her character served as a second mentor for Lang. I wanted to see her do a bit more in the film, actually. Bobby Canavale (Chef, Third Watch) and Judy Greer (Jurassic World) both have nice supporting roles in this.

Corey Stoll has played an ass so much on-screen that I’m not entirely sure he isn’t that way off camera. Between Non-Stop, House of Cards, Midnight in Paris and now Ant-Man, he’s plays the kind of characters that were historically set aside for character actors like Jeff Kober or Michael Ironside. Honestly, they couldn’t have made a better choice here. Cross comes off like a variant of Iron Man’s Odebiah Stane, resentful, evil, and maybe a little crazed. Rudd, on the other hand, handles the Hero’s Journey with ease, bringing his own sense of comedy that works almost as well as it did for Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s not perfect, but the character’s lighthearted nature is a good contrast from the serious gloom and doom that most of the Avengers are going through these days, and I feel Rudd did well here.

That’s another aspect of Ant-Man that needs to be recognized. The story in this may have a larger impact in things to come, but it felt really compact. Since the focus on the story involves Lang getting back to his daughter and stopping this one small thing, it takes a step back from the escalation we’ve been getting in previous MCU films. To me, since Phase Two started, every film’s been a stepping stone with at least one huge revelation somewhere that shows this is all much bigger than any one hero can take on. Discovery of the Infinity Stones, the big reveal of S.H.I.E.L.D. In the Winter Soldier and the events in Age of Ultron cover a large area. Maybe it’s better to say that they have an impact that’s covers a wide distance. With Ant-Man being the first film of Phase Three, it feels almost as if a step back it taken to something more personal. It’s not bad, but it’s different. It has the potential to leave viewers with a bad taste in their mouths if they were expecting something grand.

The effects in Ant-Man are good, really, really sweet. Quite honestly, it may be one of the first times where I haven’t found myself annoyed by what I call “The Zoic Effect” – that technique used in almost every film these days where you’re watching something and the director decides “Hey, let’s do a maximum level quick zoom on that target right there!”, because there’s a chance the audience might not see the subject. I believe Zoic Studios were the first to do that with Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, though I could be wrong. In Ant-Man, that rapid intense zoom is almost a welcome requirement when watching a little figure run and leap up and over objects. Add a 3D effect to all that, and I found myself enjoying that on the big screen. From a directing standpoint, it’s all very straightforward and you get an idea of the influences from all of the writers involved. Still, Peyton Reed (Down With Love) keeps from the film from straying too far away from it’s intended focus. Additionally, though the help of CGI, Disney/Marvel was able to digitize a younger Michael Douglas, and the look of this was even better than what they accomplished with Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy.

Overall, Ant-Man is a great addition to the MCU and on it’s own, it’s strong. I suppose Thor will still have to stay as the Cars 2 of that movie library. Note to viewers: If you’re planning to see this, be sure to stay until after the end credits. There’s a mid scene during the credits and one at the very end.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Sabotage, The Raid 2, John Wick, Fury


2014 had it’s share of very good action films and here are four that I was particularly drawn to. While the film themselves were of varying degrees of quality in terms of storytelling. These 4 films all had one thing that I enjoyed despite their films’ flaws. They all had action scenes that I thought were quite excellent.

You have gritty present-day action thriller, an operatic gangster epic, a revenge thriller and a war film. One stars an aging action star back from playing politician. Another a foreign film whose filmmaker and star have set the bar for all action films for years to come. Then there’s the stunt coordinators and 2nd unit directors finally making their mark with their first feature-length film. Lastly, a war film that brings the brutality of World War II tank warfare to the forefront.

4 SHOTS FROM 4 FILMS

Sabotage (dir. by David Ayer)

Sabotage (dir. by David Ayer)

John Wick (dir. by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch)

John Wick (dir. by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch)