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: Wonder Woman (dir by Patty Jenkins)


Wonder Woman is awesome!

I spent a while trying to think of the best way to begin this review.  There’s a lot to be said about Wonder Woman, as both a film and as a character.  Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be flooded with think pieces.  Is Wonder Woman too feminist or not feminist enough?  Does Wonder Woman herald a new direction for the DC Expanded Universe or is it destined to just be an anomaly among the ruins of crap like Man of Steel and Suicide Squad?  Does it announce the arrival of new star?  Is Wonder Woman pro-war or a plea for peace?  Does Wonder Woman live up to the rapturous early reviews or is it destined to suffer the same fate as the initially acclaimed, later-reviled Ghostbusters reboot?

Those are all legitimate questions.  They’re all worthy of debate and discussion.  And I look forward to reading everyone’s thoughts on blah blah blah blah….

Yes, Wonder Woman is empowering, both as a film and as a character.  It’s amazing to think that, with all the super hero adaptations that have come out over the past ten years, Wonder Woman is the first one to center around a female super hero.

Yes, Wonder Woman does finally prove that DC Expanded Universe can produce a good film, though I do have to say that two of the best things about Wonder Woman is that it had very little to do with any of the other DCEU films and it felt more like an MCU film.  With the period setting (the film takes place during World War I) and it’s weary view of the wars that men fight, Wonder Woman has far more in common with the first Captain America film than it does with Man of Steel.

Yes, Gal Gadot is going to be a huge star and her performance here suggests that she has range beyond action films and comic book melodramas.

Yes, Wonder Woman is a plea for peace but it’s a sincere and honest plea and one that does not ignore the realities of human nature.

And, finally, yes, Wonder Woman deserves those good reviews and I believe it will stand the test of time.

When all is said and done, what really matters is that Wonder Woman is freaking awesome!  The teaming of director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot has resulted in one of the most entertaining and exciting comic book movies of recent times.  Usually, I resent it when an audience breaks into applause at the end of a movie, largely because it makes me feel as if I’m being pressured to make a snap judgment about a movie’s worth before I’ve had time to give it proper thought.  However, this time, when the applause broke out at the Alamo Drafthouse, I happily joined in.

I could be wrong about this but I don’t think Wonder Woman is ever actually called “Wonder Woman” at any point during the film.  If she was, I missed it and I’m sure someone will correct me in the comments.  Instead, she is referred to by her proper name, Diana.  When the film opens (after the obligatory modern-day prologue), Diana is a child living on the island of Themyscira, the home of the legendary Amazons.  Diana is the only child among the Amazons.  The daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana dreams of becoming a warrior but her mother refuses to allow it.  When Diana is trained, it’s in secret by her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright).  At one point, Antiope tells Diana that if she’s going to be warrior, she’s going to have to be prepared to fight for everything.  No victory, Antiope tells her, will ever come easily.  I nodded at that line and I’m sure every other woman in the audience did so as well.  We understood what Antiope was saying.

In 1918, for the first time in centuries, a man reaches the island.  His name is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and he’s an American spy.  No sooner does Steve’s plane crash on the beach then a boat full of Germans arrive.  After a genuinely exciting battle (perhaps the first exciting action scene to appear in any of the DCEU films), Steve reveals that the world is at war.  Suspecting that it is the influence of Ares, the god of war, that is causing people to kill one another, Diana defies her mother’s orders and leaves the island with Steve.  Steve’s goal is to keep the Germans from developing and deploying a lethal gas.  Diana, meanwhile, plans to track down and kill Ares.

While Steve is convinced that, as a result of human nature, wars are inevitable, Diana is resolute in her belief that all the evil in the world can be linked to Ares.  Their conflicting world views give Wonder Woman far more emotional depth and intellectual resonance than any of the other films that have, so far, been a part of the DC Expanded Universe.  By refusing to indulge in portentous hypermasculinity, it avoids becoming a pretentious slog like Man of Steel or Batman v Superman.  By refusing to treat war, death, and violence as a joke, it avoids falling into the soulless trap that imprisoned Suicide Squad.  When Diana runs and leaps into battle, she’s not just fighting for good against evil.  She’s fighting for the soul of humanity.

Some of the action scenes in Wonder Woman are nothing less than amazing.  The scene where Diana crosses the aptly named “No-Man’s Land” is destined to be remembered as a classic moment in comic book cinema.  I don’t want to spoil too much of the film but I will say that you’ll also never forget the way that Diana takes out a German sniper.  It’s an amazing moment, one that is matched by the film’s final battle.  Again, I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll just say that the film’s finale brought tears to my eyes.

After providing Batman v Superman with its only good moments, Gal Gadot finally gets the film that she deserves and she gives an amazing performance.  As played by Gadot, Diana is confident but never arrogant, occasionally naive but never foolish.  She’s a fighter, one who refuses to surrender even when the rest of the world tells her to go home.  (There’s a rather interesting throw-away line, in which Steven’s secretary says that she’s looking forward to getting to vote in her first election.  Wonder Woman is saving a world that wouldn’t even allow her a voice in selecting the man who are constantly putting it in danger.)  Gal Gadot gives a charismatic and star-making performance.

Also giving a good performance — perhaps a career best if you take Hell or High Water out of the equation — is Chris Pine.  When Pine first appears, he seems to be doing a riff on his too-perfect Prince Charming performance in Into the Woods.  But, as the film progresses, Pine brings unexpected depth to this role.  Special mention should also be made of David Thewlis, who may not have a huge role but who makes the most of his limited screen time.

But, with all that in mind, the most important thing that I can tell you about Wonder Woman is that the film is an absolute blast, a fast-paced and exciting action film that is complimented by strong performances and an unexpectedly poignant subtext.

It’s empowering.

It’s entertaining.

It’s worthy of the applause that filled the Alamo Drafthouse.

In short, it’s absolutely awesome.

See it this weekend.

(Now, Marvel, where’s that Black Widow movie that y’all better be developing?)

Shattered Politics #93: American Hustle (dir by David O. Russell)


American_Hustle_2013_poster

“Some of this actually happened.”

— Opening Title of American Hustle (2013)

I have always been surprised by how much some people hate the 2013 best picture nominee, American Hustle.  Even two years after the film was first released, you’ll still find people whining that the film felt like David O. Russell’s attempt to remake Goodfellas (yes, I have actually seen more than a few people online making this idiotic claim) or claiming that the movie was overrated or that there wasn’t anyone in the film that they could root for.  While every film has its detractors, I’m always a little bit taken aback by just how passionately some people dislike this film.

Some of it, of course, is because the film that beat American Hustle for best picture was the universally acclaimed 12 Years A Slave.  As hard as it may seem to believe now, there were a lot of people who thought that American Hustle might actually beat 12 Years A Slave.  Strangely enough, a lot of online film bloggers tend to take a Manichaen approach to the Oscars, viewing each year’s race in terms of good and evil. The film that they want to win represents good and, therefore, every competing film must represent evil.  It’s a pretty stupid and immature way of looking at things but, then again, the stupid and immature approach has worked pretty well for Sasha Stone and Ryan Adams over at AwardsDaily.com so who am I to criticize?

Of course, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the majority of American Hustle‘s most strident online critics have been male.  I imagine that they watched the film and, in Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, they saw every unresolved crush of their adolescence.  When Amy Adams successfully fooled Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper, these critics saw themselves being fooled.  When Jennifer Lawrence called Bale a “sick son of a bitch,” these critics felt that they were being called a sick son of a bitch.  American Hustle is a film about men who don’t know how to talk to women and that probably struck a little too close to home for a lot of those online critics.

(I imagine that the majority of online American Hustle haters probably preferred Rooney Mara’s version of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Noomi Rapace’s.)

Of course, the truth of the matter is that American Hustle was one of the best films of a very good year.  Of all the films nominated for best picture of 2013, American Hustle was my personal favorite.

Based, very loosely, on true story, American Hustle is a period piece.  It takes place in the late 70s, which of course means that we get a lot of great music, a scene in a disco, and clothes that are both somehow ludicrous and to die for at the same time.  It’s a glamorous film about glamorous people doing glamorous and not-so-glamorous things and how can you not love that?

Irving (Christian Bale, giving a brave performance) is a generally nice guy who also happens to be a con artist.  His unlikely partner is Sydney (Amy Adams), a former stripper turned Cosmo intern.  When Sydney is working with Irving, she takes on a totally different identity and tells people that she’s Lady Edith Greensly, a British aristocrat who has international banking connections.  When Sydney plays Edith, she speaks in a posh British accent and what’s interesting is that her accent is often (deliberately) inconsistent.  However, as Irving points out, it doesn’t matter whether her accent is a 100% convincing or not.  What’s important is that people want her to be Lady Edith Greensly and people will make excuses for almost anything as long as it confirms what they want to believe.

Eventually, Irving and Sydney are arrested by ambitious and highly strung FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  Richie, who spends a good deal of the film with curlers in his hair, lives with his mother and has a boring fiancée who he doesn’t seem to like very much.  (Richie is also briefly seen sniffing coke, which might explain a lot of his more extreme behavior.)  Richie wants to make a name for himself and he views Irving and Sydney as his way to do so.  He blackmails them into helping him set up and arrest crooked politicians and businessmen.  Richie also finds himself growing obsessed with Sydney, who he believes to be English even after she tells him that she isn’t.

All of this eventually leads to Irving and Richie setting up the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).  Polito, who may be corrupt but who also seems to sincerely care about helping the citizens of his town, wants to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City.  Irving and Richie introduce him to FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Pena), who is disguised as Sheik Abdullah and who they claim is interested in investing in Carmine’s plans.  This, of course, leads to a meeting both with a local Mafia don (Robert De Niro) and with several politicians who agree to help out the Sheik out in exchange for money.

(And no, the film did not lie.  This is based on a true story, believe it or not.)

Complicating things is the fact that Irving himself comes to truly like the generous and big-hearted Carmine and how can you not?  When the film was first released, Jeremy Renner was a bit overshadowed by Bale, Cooper, Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence.  However, Renner gives the best performance in the film, playing Carmine with a disarming mix of innocence and shrewdness.  He’s the type of guy who is smart enough to walk out on the first meeting with the fake sheik’s associates but who is still naive enough that he can be charmed by Irving.  When the fake sheik gives Carmine an equally fake knife as a gift, the look of genuine honor on Carmine’s face is heart-breaking.

The other big complication is Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).  Rosalyn is jealous, unstable, unpredictable, and, in her own way, one of the smarter people in the film.  She’s also a bit of pyromaniac and, when she accidentally blows up a new microwave, you’re really not surprised.  (And, when Rosalyn starts to obsessively clean the house while singing Live and Let Die at the top of her lungs, I felt like I was watching a blonde version of myself.)  When Rosalyn starts to have an affair of her own, it leads to American Hustle‘s satisfying and twisty conclusion.

(Again, a lot of the same online toadsuckers who irrationally hate American Hustle seem to hold a particular contempt to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in this film, as if to acknowledge that Lawrence — as always — kicks ass would somehow be a betrayal of Lupita Nyong’o’s award-winning performance in 12 Years A Slave.)

Don’t listen to the haters.  American Hustle is a great film, a stylish and frequently funny look at politics, corruption, and the ways that people con themselves into believing what they want and need to be true.