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.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: American Assassin (dir by Michael Cuesta)


Probably the best thing about American Assassin is how simple it is.

The film opens on the beach, with Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) asking his girlfriend to marry him.  No sooner has she accepted than suddenly, terrorists are washing up on the beach and, in a genuinely frightening scene, shooting everyone that they see.  Mitch is wounded.  His girlfriend is killed.

Mitch seeks revenge against the man who killed his “future wife” (to borrow a phrase from The Room) but U.S. Special Forces kill the terrorist seconds before Mitch gets the chance.  However, the CIA is so impressed, by Mitch’s single-minded and obsessive desire for revenge, that they recruit him to join Orion, a black ops unit.  Under the guidance of grizzled veteran, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), Mitch becomes an American assassin.  His first mission?  To stop a renegade mercenary known as the Ghost (Taylor Kitsch).

In many ways, American Assassin feels like a throwback to the action films of the early aughts.  There’s none of the moral ambiguity of the Bourne films and Mitch Rapp never indulges in any of the self-loathing that’s marred the Daniel Craig James Bond films.  Remember how Bond got drunk and tried to interrogate that rat in SPECTRE?  Judging from American Assassin, that’s something Mitch Rapp would never do.  And, if he ever did, Stan Hurley would probably tell him to stop whining and get back to work.

In American Assassin, the bad guys are undoubtedly the bad guys and the good guys are undoubtedly the good guys and, while that may not be the approach that leads to Academy Awards and overwhelming critical acclaim, it still makes for an undeniably entertaining movie.  Director Michael Cuesta does a good job with the action scenes and he gets good performances from the entire cast.  Taylor Kitsch is far more compelling as a villain than he ever was in any of his heroic roles and, not surprisingly, Michael Keaton steals the whole show as the tough but caring Stan Hurley.  Michael Keaton is definitely one of the best actors working today.  He can slide seamlessly from a prestige drama like Spotlight to an action film like American Assassin to a comic book film like Spider-Man: Homecoming and he can do it without missing a beat.  Those are three very different films and Keaton was the best thing in all of them.

And, finally, we have Dylan O’Brien.  Last year, as we all know, O’Brien was seriously injured while filming the third Maze Runner film.  At the time, it was announced that O’Brien’s injuries were “substantial but not life threatening” but I know there was a feeling that his career might be over.  Even though American Assassin was not his first film since getting injured, it was his first starring role and I have to admit that it was good to see O’Brien back and looking good.  O’Brien brought a lot of gravity to the role of Mitch Rapp.  He had the haunted look of a man obsessed with revenge.  When I saw O’Brien in The Maze Runner and, before that, in Teen Wolf, I thought he was a pleasant young actor but, in American Assassin, he gives his most mature performance to date.  With American Assassin, Dylan O’Brien grows up.

As I said, American Assassin is a simple film.  There’s not much going on beneath the surface and it you’re looking for anything deeper than pure entertainment, you might want to look elsewhere.  American Assassin is what it is and makes no apologies.  What it does, it does well.

Shattered Politics #81: Charlie Wilson’s War (dir by Mike Nichols)


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I hate to say it but Charlie Wilson’s War did not do much for me.

I hate to say that because this 2007 film is fairly well-acted, well-directed, and well-written (by Aaron Sorkin, whose scripts usually get on my last nerve).  And it deals with an important subject.  Taking place in the 80s, the film details how a Texas congressman (Tom Hanks), working with a profane CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and an eccentric socialite (Julia Roberts), managed to create popular and political support for giving weapons to the Afghan rebels who were fighting the Soviet invasion of their country.  By doing so, Wilson helps to weaken the Soviet Union but, when his efforts to provide humanitarian aide to Afghanistan are less successful, he also contributes to the subsequent rise of the Taliban.

It should have been a film that I would normally rave about but … I don’t know.

I watched Charlie Wilson’s War.  I laughed at some of Tom Hanks’s facial reactions.  (Hanks is playing a womanizer here who may, or may not, have been high on cocaine when he first learned about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and it’s obvious that Hanks really enjoyed getting to play someone who wasn’t a traditionally upright hero.)  As I watched, I again considered what a loss we suffered when the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman died.  And, as I watched Julia Roberts, I again wonder why, despite the fact that she’s from Georgia, it is apparently impossible for Julia to sound authentically Southern.

(Of course, I’m sure some would argue that Julia wasn’t playing Southern here.  She was playing a Texan.  Well, I’m a Texan and I’ve never heard anyone down here sound like that.  Tom Hanks, meanwhile, actually managed to come up with a decent accent.  Wisely, he underplayed the accent, whereas I don’t think that Julia has ever underplayed anything in her life.)

And, at the end of Charlie Wilson’s War, I knew I had watched a good film but it was also a film that left me feeling curious detached.  To be honest, I almost think the film would have been better if Hoffman’s CIA agent had been the main character, as opposed to Hanks’s congressman.  Hoffman’s character, after all, is the one who nearly lost his job over his belief that the Afghan rebels should be armed.  All Hanks really has to worry about is whether or not he’s going to be indicted for using cocaine in Vegas.

However, I do think that Charlie Wilson’s War does deserve praise for one very specific reason.  Excluding the films made by native filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson, Charlie Wilson’s War is one of the few films that I’ve ever seen that actually portrays anyone from Texas in a positive light.  Even more shockingly, it’s a positive portrayal of a Texas politician!

(I know it must have been tempting to change history and pretend that Charlie Wilson was originally elected from somewhere up north…)

But, overall, Charlie Wilson’s War didn’t do much for me.  But, if you’re into military history and all that, you might enjoy the film more than I did.

(Plus, all you boys will probably enjoy Emily Blunt’s scenes….)

At the very least, you can watch it for Philip Seymour Hoffman.

 

Trailer: American Sniper (2nd Official)


American Sniper

Talking to empty chairs aside, Clint Eastwood still goes down as one of the greatest living American filmmakers. This doesn’t dismiss the current slump he has been in the past couple years (Jersey Boys, Hereafter, J. Edgar just to name a few). This 2014 holiday season he’s set to release his latest film: American Sniper.

The film is an adaptation of the best-selling autobiography of the same name by former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. Steven Spielberg was initially attached to direct the film, but bowed soon after. In comes Clint Eastwood to take up the director’s chair with Bradley Cooper starring as Chris Kyle (also producer on the film).

The film has already made it’s premiere at the AFI Fest with a limited release on Christmas Day 2014.

American Sniper will  have a general release date of January 16, 2015.

Trailer: American Sniper (Official)


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Warner Bros. Pictures makes it a triple-bill with the latest in a series of trailers for some of their upcoming films.

The latest to arrive is Clint Eastwood’s latest film. Eastwood adapts the Chris Kyle autobiography, American Sniper, of which Steven Spielberg was originally attached to direct until dropping out in the summer of 2013. Eastwood was announced a week later as taking on directing duties on one of the more sought after properties of the last couple years.

Bradley Cooper will star in as Chris Kyle with Sienna Miller in the role of Chris’ wife, Taya Renae Kyle.

American Sniper is set for a limited release on December 25, 2014 and going wide on January 20, 2015.