Tag Archives: war

The Devil’s Backbone – Review

3 Oct

When I think of some of the best film makers working today, one of my go to names will always be Guillermo del Toro. At his most personal, his stories delve into the darkest of fantasies and bring them to life using real world consequences. We see this with films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak. On the flip side, del Toro can create spectacles for the big screen with a vision completely different from any other big budget film maker. Think of the two Hellboy films and Pacific Rim. With it being the beginning of that wonderful season of Halloween, I thought it would be a great time to check out one of del Toro’s most praised ghost stories, The Devil’s Backbone, from 2001. He’s stated that this film is a sort of cousin to Pan’s Labyrinth and it’s clear why. This is a sombre tale of war destroying people’s lives, while also offering a spooky ghost story and a message of strength that bursts through the sadness to offer hope. To put it simply, The Devil’s Backbone should be considered a modern classic.

Carlos (Fernando Tielve), an orphan who’s father was recently killed in the Spanish Civil War, is taken into an orphanage the wise Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) and his fellow administrator and teacher for the kids, Carmen (Marisa Paredes). Upon arrive there, Carlos finds something very odd about the place, and it’s a something that’s quite obvious. There’s a bomb in the middle of the courtyard that landed and got lodged in the ground, but never detonated. He also hears stories from the kids there about an orphan named Santi (Junio Valverde), who mysteriously went missing when the bomb landed. One night, Carlos is out looking for water and comes across what seems to be the ghost of Santi who warns Carlos that many people are about to die. This apparition keeps appearing to Carlos, and it doesn’t take long for the other kids to believe him. Meanwhile, the groundskeeper, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), with the help of his friends begin scheming to rob the safe that Casares and Carmen have hidden in one of the buildings. As tensions rise between all parties, Santi’s warning of violence and death becomes an inevitability.

There’s so much to love with The Devil’s Backbone, it’s hard to find a place to start. Let’s go with the story. Guillermo del Toro is a master storyteller, and he works really well with telling these creepy tales through the innocent eyes of children. We see what Carlos sees and we know only what Carlos knows. There are only a few scenes where we are privileged enough to look behind the closed doors of the adults at this orphanage and see an establishment that is haunted by both the ghost of a young boy, but also crime, deception, and lust. While being a horror story and a drama and an allegory for war, The Devil’s Backbone has a strong mystery at its core. What’s the deal with the bomb in the middle of the courtyard? How did Santi really die? What does the warning of violence and death that Santi give mean? There’s so many questions asked during the slow burn of the plot that it had me riveted. I had to keep watching to find out more, and the payoff is quite literally explosive.

One of the most fun reasons to watch one of del Toro’s movies is his blending of genres and the fantastical with the brutal realities of life. The Devil’s Backbone is definitely a traditional ghost story at its core. A boy goes to an orphanage during a time of violence and is haunted by a ghost of one of its former residents. That may have been enough to support the movie, but it goes the extra mile. The humans in this movie often become creepier than the little ghost boy. The talks of the war and brutality that is happening in Spain is an ever present discussion by the adults in this movie that the kids can’t seem to comprehend. Jacinto also provides most of the actual horror in this film. He’s conniving and unpredictable and a true sociopath if I’ve ever seen one. Who’s stuck in the middle of all this? The children. They’re caught between the horrors of the real world and the people who inhabit it on one side and on the other the manifestation of the consequences of their actions. It’s not horror in the traditional sense, but it’s horror nonetheless.

Amidst all this terror is a film that’s shot beautifully. There’s something about Guillermo del Toro’s eye for things that isn’t extravagant, but it’s enough to hold your attention. It’s hard to explain, but he just has a way of showing just what needs to be shown in the exact way it needs to be. Can I get any more vague than that? Probably. Just give me the chance. The design of the ghost is also great, and it’s clear that he puts a lot of effort into creating his different specters and creatures for his movies because they always seem to stand out in some way. Santi is one of his greatest creations. He’s just a pale ghost that can be seen through, but what really makes it special is the trail of blood that comes out of his head and slithers through the air. Try to get that image out of your head. I dare you.

What else more can I say about The Devil’s Backbone? I absolutely loved this movie. It’s a haunting tale of ghosts, violence, and war but ultimately ends with a message of strength and bravery even for the most innocent of people. This is a film that masterfully blends gothic horror and the drama of the real world with the victims here being children. Sounds pretty heavy, right? It is and I respect del Toro for making a movie like this. He truly is a master and this is one of his greatest creations.

Final Grade: A+

Duck, You Sucker! – Review

3 Oct

Sergio Leone had a really incredible film making career, even if he didn’t create as much as some other very fine film makers. It’s impossible to ignore how A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly made a huge impact on the aesthetics of a movie, the western genre, and pop culture as a whole. Leone’s next foray into film happened in 1968 with another classic, Once Upon a Time in the West. Finally, his last piece of work, and arguably his most ambitious, was the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. Aren’t these all unmistakable classics? But wait. What’s that movie hiding in between West and America? Why, it’s a pretty unknown movie that has one of the most incredible titles ever. This is, of course, his 1972 film Duck, You Sucker!. Upon its release, this movie got very little attention and bombed in the United States. It hasn’t really fared much better, and is still Leone’s most unknown film, besides maybe The Colossus at Rhodes. Does this movie deserve to be overlooked? Not at all, but it is Leone’s weakest work in the western genre.

In the midst of the Mexican Revolution, people have to do whatever they can to survive. Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is a bandit who, along with his family, robs from the wealthy who are making their living off the violence of the revolution. After a successful robbery of a stagecoach, Juan runs into John Mallory (James Coburn), and IRA explosives specialist exiled overseas after a heavy betrayal. Despite being at odds with one another, John is wooed by Juan’s idea to rob the Mesa Verde National Bank. The job seems to go off without a hitch, but things at the bank are not what they seem and the actions of Juan and John plunge them deeper into the world of the revolution. Now on the run from the sadistic Col. Reza (Antoine Saint-John), Juan and John are forced to join up with revolutionaries and help them fight while also reevaluating their own beliefs and moral code.

Sergio Leone is a classic example of an epic film maker. He never shied away from making a movie as grand as he possibly could. Duck, You Sucker! is no exception. This is huge movie with great set pieces and over the top action sequences that seem to span an entire country. It has the look I’ve come to expect from a Leone movie, which is surprising as to why this one gets so overlooked. There’s a really exciting scene at a bridge where the Mexican army is trying to cross, but John and Juan pick them off using machine guns and dynamite. It was explosive and exciting, and those are the reasons to watch this movie. The idea of having this story set within the Mexican Revolution is also interesting and makes for more epic scenes. Leone stated that he was not trying to offer any political statement, and I agree. It clearly is just showing the horrors of conflict and the effects it can have on the people of that country, especially in a more lower class environment. This makes for an interesting bridge between his more classic Once Upon a Time in the West and his more thoughtful effort with Once Upon a Time in America.

There is something that is severely lacking in this movie that is always ever present in Sergio Leone’s best movies. That is the dynamic between good and evil. We see an interesting arc with Juan where his character completely changes his ways, and that’s one of the better parts of Duck, You Sucker!. Unfortunately, Juan and John just aren’t the most exciting heroes, and don’t even come close to matching the Man With No Name. Col. Reza is also a sorry excuse for a villain. He’s in the movie for a matter of minutes and has no real impact until the very end. Remember the showdowns in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West? Those were outstanding climaxes that featured larger than life representations of good versus evil. Duck, You Sucker! certainly tries to keep that level of energy, but it just doesn’t quite make it. The arcs of the characters are much better than the characters themselves.

Something you can always count on with these movies however is that they are going to look superb. Duck, You Sucker! has sweeping cinematography of the landscapes that is juxtaposed with the traditional Leone close ups and zooms. Leone knew how to capitalize on the actors’ faces and expressions over dialogue, which is why some of his best scenes just feature the actors using their faces to speak. All of this works in tandem with Ennio Morricone’s always excellent score. Comparing this score to some of his others he did for Leone probably isn’t the best way to go about it, but I’m going to do it anyway. This isn’t one of his strongest and it doesn’t really stay in my head like the others. That being said, while the movies on it heightens the drama and the action considerably which is just what these musical pieces are supposed to do.

Duck, You Sucker! is far from being Sergio Leone’s best film, but it’s still a testament to his larger than life and highly artistic film making. It’s story shows an evolution from his simple drifter swoops in to save the day kind of stories and more to an internationally aware tale that showcases morality and change. The characters aren’t as exciting as I would have liked them to be, and a lot of this has to do with a lackluster villain. Still, Sergio Leone’s film making and Ennio Morricone’s music is more than enough for any fan of movies to check out this little known entry in Leone’s filmography.

Final Grade: B+

Tears of the Sun – Review

18 Sep

It’s always an exciting feeling to finally get around to watching a movie you’ve been trying to watch for years. I remember seeing the trailer for Tears of the Sun years ago when I was younger and first getting into war movies. I thought it looked excellent and I really wanted to see it, but never actually got a chance to. Now, 14 years after the movie was first released, I’ve gotten around to seeing it. I had high expectations going into it since it’s been a recurring thought to me for years and also the fact that it’s helmed by Antoine Fuqua. Unfortunately, these expectations were nowhere near met. Tears of the Sun does have its surprises and some truly gripping scenes, but it too often falls into the clichés of the genre which really just leaves it as a middle of the road war drama.

After a coup leads to a rebel uprising that results in the murder of the Nigerian president and his family, violence inevitably erupts throughout the entire region. U.S. armed forces are deployed off the coast, including a team led by Lt. A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis). After completing a mission, the lieutenant and his team are sent back into the hot zone Captain Bill Rhodes (Tom Skerritt) to extract Dr. Lean Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), an American citizen running a mission and hospital in the middle of the conflict. Nothing in Waters’ orders does it say for him to also extract the able bodied Nigerians staying at the mission, and at first he isn’t planning on it. After seeing a particularly brutal massacre, however, Waters decides to go against orders and lead both Kendricks and the civilians from the mission to the Cameroon border. With rebels hot on their tails, Waters and his team have to keep everyone moving as fast as they can, but a conflict with the rebels chasing them eventually becomes inevitable.

Tears of the the Sun is an extremely muddy movie and that’s what really holds it down. It starts off interesting enough, but once Waters, Kendricks, and everyone else start their journey through the jungle, it just turns into a mess. There’s scene after scene after scene after scene of just everyone hiking through various locations with an attempt to progress the drama. Unfortunately, the characters are so dull that this drama isn’t anything special and just gets lost in the uninspired performances and gray cinematography. There’s also plenty of lines of dialogue that I said before the character even had a chance to say them because this movie is loaded with your standard war clichés. A change of location might have changed things up after a while, but every scene looks almost exactly the same it felt like everyone was just walking in circles. This could’ve been an interesting element in the movie, how the immense jungle can cause confusion, but no.

Like I said before, the characters in Tears of the Sun are just dull. There’s very little to say about them because most of them lacked individual personalities. The men in Waters’ team were all pretty much the same person. They were all the hardened soldier that still had the wit to crack a joke from time to time. None of them stood out and anyone of them could delivered any line. When things get hectic during the climax and their lives are in danger, I didn’t really care because none of them really made me care about them. The same can be said about Willis’ character. His performance is so one note that it was hard to connect with him in the least. This role could have been played by anyone and he was just a boring protagonist. The only person that really stands out is Monica Bellucci who gives a very heartfelt and honest performance as Dr. Kendricks. She’s one of the only people who actually seems to be trying.

There are a few moments that do stick out in the otherwise muddled plot. The beginning was interesting and did pull me in to the setting easily enough. There’s a gut wrenching scene in the middle of the movie that shows just how truly horrible the situation is during this conflict and the prices that people trying to live their lives are paying because of it. The scene actually got me back with the movie and created a whole new layer of drama and suspense, but once the same old hiking through the woods started up again I began to drift once more. The climax is less than spectacular, but the very end of the movie features a scene of Willis actually acting like he wants to be in this movie. It’s a satisfying ending that wraps everything up well, but it certainly doesn’t make up for the rest of the movie.

Tears of the Sun is a watchable movie, but that’s all I’m really going to say about it. Besides Bellucci, the performances are one note, the cinematography is boring, and the constant walking through the jungle with characters I didn’t care about just became boring after a while. There are a few scenes that stick out, but they really are few and far between. Tears of the Sun is reminiscent of other movies that are just done better, while this one if meant to live in the realm of mediocrity. This isn’t a necessary movie nor is it one that will be remembered. It isn’t exactly bad, but there just isn’t too much to say about it.

Final Grade: C

Cold Mountain – Review

3 Sep

Civil War movies fascinate me because I’ve always seemed to gravitate towards World War II films so I feel like I’ve missed out a little bit. It’s a really intriguing era with a lot of potential for some exceptional production design with how America looked and functioned in this mid 19th century time. In 1997, a novel called Cold Mountain was released having been written by Charles Frazier. It went on to win the National Book Award, but I don’t really hear too much more about it. In 2003, it was adapted for the big screen by acclaimed film maker Anthony Minghella, who before this won the Academy Award for his directing of The English Patient. I had some reservations going into Cold Mountain, but it actually surprised me. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a solid Civil War epic that deserves some attention.

With the South talking of seceding from the North, tensions in the small North Carolina town of Cold Mountain are high. Many people want the war to happen, but the new town preacher, Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland), and his daughter, Ada (Nicole Kidman) are staunchly against it. Amongst these talks of war, Ada finds peace with a local man she meets named WP Inman (Jude Law), and the two quickly fall for each other. Before anything can be done with their feelings, North Carolina secedes from the Union and most of the men of the town enlist to the Confederate Army, including Inman. As the years of the war drag on and hope for the South seems bleak, Ada struggles to survive in the town and only gets by with the help of a local woman (Kathy Baker) and her new tough talking friend, Ruby (Renée Zelwegger). Meanwhile, Inman is injured in a battle and after receiving a letter from Ada decides to desert and make the long journey home to Cold Mountain. Along the way, Inman sees all sorts of kinds which gives him a perspective of what he’s been fighting for and how the war has torn apart so many lives.

That was a pretty tough summary to write because there’s so much that happens in Cold Mountain. It’s a long movie that clocks over two and a half hours, which was actually one of my main worries. I’m all about watching a long movie that has a grand scope, but I’ve seen some recently that don’t really know what to do with a story of that magnitude. Luckily, this isn’t Minghella’s first rodeo and he knows just how to handle a story like this. I left out a lot of characters and subplots, because there’s no way I’d be able to fit it all in to one paragraph. This is truly an epic film and it’s one that works. Inman’s travels through the different regions is extremely entertaining because he sees so many different kinds of people. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a reverend who gets banished from his town for getting a slave woman pregnant, Giovanni Ribisi plays a man who is using the war to his advantage in treacherous ways, and Natalie Portman is a woman who’s lost nearly everything. It’s a journey that has layers and is at times heartbreaking, touching, and hilarious. This may sound cheesy, but it really felt like an adventure.

While this adventure through the crumbling South, Ada’s own personal adventure in Cold Mountain is just as interesting. It’s a town in utter despair with the casualties of war posted on a board in the middle of town. The town seems to be dying just like the men that went off to fight, and watching it happen can prove for some rough viewing. The Civil War has always been seen as a war where Americans killed their fellow men, and that macrocosmic idea is taken to just one town where the violence of the war bleeds into this area that hasn’t seen any actual battle. It’s a different kind of struggle for survival and even though it isn’t as epic a journey as Inman, it never bored me. This is another surprising thing about this movie. It’s nearly 3 hours but I was never bored.

This is a huge cast so forgive me if I can’t get to everyone. Jude Law and Nicole Kidman both do very good work in this movie and their chemistry is believable even though the amount of screen time they share compared to how long the movie is is very small. A lot of the minor characters really steal the show however. Both Hoffman and Portman are two that really stand out, but I also have to give credit to Brendan Gleeson and Jack White, of all people. The real stand out performance, however, is Renée Zelwegger, who won the Academy Award for her performance, and rightfully so. The only thing that doesn’t always work for me in this movie is the writing. It gets a little too theatrical in moments that require some down to earth dialogue. It’s a very melodramatic movie at times and sometimes it works, but sometimes I found myself cringing.

Cold Mountain was a surprisingly affective movie that I don’t hear too much about. It has an incredible cast that are part of a really entertaining, but sometimes difficult story about how war can tear a nation to shreds. The only thing that didn’t sit well with me was some of the melodramatic writing that just felt forced and was probably only necessary so they’d have a clip for the Oscars. Still, that is a minor issue that doesn’t hurt the movie to bad. It’s an epic adventure that has all the ingredients for a memorable film.

Final Grade: A-

Dunkirk – Review

26 Jul

The Dunkirk Evacuation, which took place in late May and early June of 1940, is an event which the late Winston Churchill deemed a “military disaster.” Even with that infamous description attached to it, it has become known as The Miracle at Dunkirk because of the amount of British Allied forces that were saved despite the odds due to bravery from the British Navy, Air Force, and civilians who were all too willing to help. It’s an incredible story and it’s a story that has now been scooped up by film making master Christopher Nolan, who not only succeeds in telling stories, but also sculpting them to feel new, unique, and memorable. Listen, The Dark Knight is a fantastic movie, Inception killed it in the imagination department, and Memento completely reinvented how to tell a simple narrative. That being said, Dunkirk may be Nolan’s masterpiece.

The story of Dunkirk is split up into three separate narratives that become interweaved as the movie goes along. The first story that is introduced is that of a British private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). Tommy narrowly escapes Nazi forces and finds himself on the beach with thousands of other British and French soldiers waiting for evacuation. Throughout the next couple of days, Tommy must survive bombings by German planes, submarine attacks on their ships, while also navigating through an environment where everyone is fighting desperately to survive. The next story is that of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and family friend George (Barry Keoghan) who use their small civilian boat to sail to Dunkirk and rescue whoever they can. Along the way they find a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s ship was sunk by the Germans and who is also suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress. Finally, we come to the eyes in the sky. Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his partner take on numerous German bombers in order to protect the civilian ships and the troops on the beach. This becomes a much harder task when his fuel gauge gets destroyed and he has to rely on memory to know how much fuel he has left.

Dunkirk is almost more than a movie. It’s an experience of sight and sound that is above the norm when compared to most of my trips to the theater. It’s almost as if the movie just wrapped around me and didn’t let up until the very last frame. The first shot of the film pulled me in immediately. It feels so sudden and unnatural, but at the same time beautiful. It sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the film. The camera swoops around the skies with the planes and runs along the beaches with the soldiers all while the devastating sound effects complete the audio/visual immersion. I don’t think I’ll be getting the sound of the German planes out of my head anytime soon. Even though that horrifying whine steals the show, the other planes, gunshots, explosions, and ricochets boomed out of the sound system and made me jump a few times. Finally I have to give major credit to Hans Zimmer for his subtle yet intense score that moves with the plot perfectly.

Something that really surprised me about Dunkirk is the way the story is told. Nolan is known to tell intricate stories, and his earlier works like Following and Memento especially play around with narrative structure. While Dunkirk isn’t quite as broken up as Memento, it still has a unique flow to it. The soldiers on the beach have a story that lasts a week, the civilians in the boat span a day, and the pilots span an hour. This really enhances the story because we’ll see something happen through the eyes of one character and then later on in the movie we’ll see it again from a different perspective. This gives the viewer a fuller view of the event as it happened. It’s also just a lot of fun putting the pieces together as the movie goes along. It was a little bit confusing at first, but I got into it pretty quickly. Could the movie have been told in a linear way? Yeah, I’m sure it could have been but I’m also glad it wasn’t.

A complaint I’ve been hearing is that there isn’t enough character development. This kind of confuses me because I never really looked at this movie as being about the characters, but more so about the events that happened on those brutal days and nights in Dunkirk. The characters in this movie serve as archetypes for real soldiers. From the PTSD ridden soldiers to the heroic English civilians, these characters represent many. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some great performances, however. Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and Cillian Murphy are the real powerhouse performances in this movie, but there wasn’t a shaky actor in the bunch. I really don’t mind not seeing their backstories or what became of them or what their motivations for their actions were, and honestly there just wasn’t time in the narrative to slow down.

Dunkirk is a masterpiece of epic proportions and is quite frankly the best work I’ve seen from Christopher Nolan. This has been a pretty strong summer with the movies I’ve been seeing, but nothing can top this one. If another movie comes along this year that hits me as hard as Dunkirk did, I’d really be surprised. This is a movie that can’t be missed. It tells an incredible story of survival, but it also reworks the tropes of the war genre in ways that I haven’t seen done before. This film is outstanding and I can’t wait to see it again.

Final Grade: A+

War for the Planet of the Apes – Review

19 Jul

When Rise of the Planet of the Apes first came out in 2011, I didn’t really think anything of it. It took me a little while to finally get around to watching it and when I did, I was floored. The action, the story, and the superb special effects were movie magic at its purest. In 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was released and improved on everything that was established in the first film. I thought that entry couldn’t be beaten, but here we are in 2017 with the third, and final, film in the trilogy called War for the Planet of the Apes. I am kind of sad to see this trilogy ending, but it’s remained a solid example of blockbuster film making and this latest entry may be the best of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy.

Years after the Simian Flu infected and wiped out a large portion of humanity, the apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) struggle to survive in the woods that provide limited isolation from vengeful human survivors. After their camp is attacked by a military faction called Alpha-Omega, Caesar decides it’s time to move camp for good, but disaster soon strikes which escalates the need to move but also ignites a vengeful spirit hidden deep within Caesar. Along with his trusted friends Maurice (Karin Konoval), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and Rocket (Terry Notary), the ape leader sets out to find the base where Alpha-Omega is located. The group finally arrives and sees that AO, along with its vicious leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), has taken the other apes captive and are forcing them to build a wall to protect Alpha-Omega from arriving military forces. As Caesar comes face to face with an enemy like this that he has yet to encounter, he must look at his actions and the needs of his clan to determine how to proceed and get everyone to safety once and for all.

The first thing I have to talk about with this movie is the special effects. I honestly believe that these new Planet of the Apes movies are the shining example of how to use motion capture and computer generated effects to tell a story and make a movie feel more complete. Remember the old Planet of the Apes films and the costumes that were used for the apes. Looking back on them they look kind of odd, and this coming from someone who adores the original series, even at its cheesiest. The motion capture effects for Caesar and the rest of the apes instill them with a level of reality that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise, and I can say this for every film in this trilogy. There are a few close up where the eyes of these apes look so real that it’s hard to believe they just don’t have actual apes playing these roles. While I’m on this topic, can Andy Serkis just get an Oscar already. The emotions and movements of Caesar are all Serkis and I feel like he doesn’t get the praise that he has deserved for years.

With this being the final film of the trilogy, I expected this to be the largest and most epic in terms of scale. This really isn’t the case. Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a huge finale on the Golden Gate Bridge, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has Koba and his followers attacking the humans in an all out battle, but War for the Planet of the Apes has a climax that is relatively smaller in comparison. This doesn’t make it more intense, however. When the major conflict of the film is finally addressed, which is the tension between Caesar and the Colonel, it’s a devastating scene that completely reinforces the themes that this movie is presenting and the moral strength and beliefs of the characters. There is a lot less action here, but Caesar’s war to free his apes and lead them to freedom is a continuing struggle that will leave your eyes glued to the screen for the nearly two and a half hour long runtime. There can be a lot of adjectives used to describe this movie, but boring would not be one of them.

The story to this film isn’t just a leave your brain at the door kind of narrative. In fact, I feel like I need to watch this movie again to fully see everything this movie had to offer. From beginning to end, there’s Biblical symbolism sprinkled throughout which can be both obvious and subtle. While there’s also clear hero and villains in this movie, writer/director Matt Reeves is interested in also showing the flaws of both. Caesar starts to see a lot of Koba in himself which frightens him, and the Colonel has motivations to do what he does other than just pure evil and sadism. This makes the story and the outcome feel heavier and puts it a step above the average summer blockbuster. I will say, there are a few moments of this movie where the suspension of disbelief is taken to the most extreme. One scene in particular actually pulled me out of the cinematic trance I was in and prompted me to turn to my friend, who was equally confused, and just ask why the film makers would make this choice.

War for the Planet of the Apes is one of the strongest summer blockbusters to come out in quite a while and is certainly the strongest film in this new Planet of the Apes trilogy. It explores themes of leadership and morality in such deep ways while also telling a science fiction/fantasy story of highly intelligent apes fighting for survival. With a story like that successfully tackling themes that deep, you know this film has to be something special. It also works as an intense action/adventure film that has plenty of exciting moments to keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. One more time for the people in the back, GIVE ANDY SERKIS AN OSCAR. In all seriousness though, War for the Planet of the Apes is an excellent film, and this entire trilogy shouldn’t be missed out on.

Final Grade: A

War Machine – Review

21 Jun

In 2012, a book titled The Operators by Rolling Stone editor Michael Hastings was released. It details the times that Hastings spent with General Stanley McChrystal, who was the commander of the International Security Assistance Force. Soon after Hastings published an article featuring McChrystal and his team, which featured a lot of trash talking certain high level government officials, McChrystal was pretty much forced to resign his position. Now we have another look at the story in a fictionalized, satirical account of what happened by writer/director David Michôd and his latest film War Machine. I’ve heard a lot of mixed things about this movie, so I was a little hesitant going into it, but I have to say I really had a blast with this movie, despite some of its minor storytelling set backs.

General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) is a man of principles, conviction, confidence, and opinions. While all of those words do perfectly describe the officer, he’s also loud mouthed, arrogant, and a buffoon. He’s also the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan at the tail end of the war. Along with his team of sycophants and cronies, McMahon has a plan to bring peace to the Middle East with the payoff being a huge boost of his ego. Of course, along the way he has to deal with bureaucrats and politicians cutting into his plans while also trying to manage relations with Afghanistan’s new president (Ben Kingsley). While formulating a plan to head into enemy territory in a major assault that will be the high point of his career, McMahon agrees to have Rolling Stone reporter Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy) join the ranks to see the inner workings of his squad. This, along with every other bad decision of his career, will ultimately be his downfall.

The first thing that I really came to appreciate after watching War Machine is the film’s tone. It’s silly and often times over the top, but it never falls into the realm of stupidity. The dialogue has some corny jokes, but it also has some pretty whip smart moments of really good satire. While all of the humor is well and good, I was also surprised to find some depth and drama to the storytelling. I was really just looking to have some laughs with this movie but I felt a little more than that. By the end of the film, I started to analyze the character of McMahon and his intentions and the consequences of his action. There are even a few quieter moments that were actually kind of sad, and that’s an area I really wasn’t expecting the film to go based on the trailer. This isn’t just a surface level movie that exists to provide some cheap laughs. War Machine has a message and actual depth to it to support the laughs and the sillier moments in the movie.

So, War Machine is a movie with a message and it’s one that I can agree with. Unfortunately, the film’s biggest problem lies with how this message is conveyed at certain times. Throughout the movie we hear Scoot McNairy’s character doing a voice over and explaining certain things that are happening in the film or describing a character we are meeting for the first time. This helps since there are a lot of minor characters in this movie and everyone is constantly traveling around. While this helps with certain things, it also comes across as annoying more often than it should. The character of Sean Cullen is fine when he’s actually with McMahon and the other soldiers, but his voice over is so cynical and snide, while also beating the viewer on the head with the opinions being expressed in the movie. It was kind of annoying being told how I should be thinking. If the writing of the voice over was toned down just a little bit, that would have been great. I can figure out the messages and themes of movies, so I really don’t need them explained to me in this way.

One of my main draws to this movie was to see Brad Pitt in yet another role where he’s playing someone completely out of the ordinary. Pitt takes this part of McMahon and completely embodies it. From his odd posture, to his facial ticks, and even the goofy way he walks and runs, he’s perfectly believable as this character and it’s easy to forget you’re watching an actor, even if his face is so recognizable. Sir Ben Kingsley is also hilarious as the off the wall president of Afghanistan that McMahon is trying to cooperate with, even if they’re both not on the same page with each other at all. Kingsley is really hardly in this film, but most every scene has Pitt in it. Unfortunately, while everyone else around them do their jobs fine, they aren’t given a whole lot to do other than the bidding of McMahon, and while there are funny moments surrounding their characters they don’t really have too much that stands out.

At the end of it, War Machine is a pretty funny film with a memorable lead character and a sharp satirical look at America’s goings on in the Middle East. It isn’t really a heavy film, so if you’re looking for serious war and drama, look elsewhere. War Machine is packed with great satire and a tad too much cynicism for my taste. Still, as far as comedies go, it’s definitely one that’s worth a look.

Final Grade: B+

Wonder Woman – Review

5 Jun

The DC Extended Universe has had a bit of a hard time. Man of Steel was a cool movie, even though it suffered from some terrible pacing. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a complete catastrophe after having sat through it more than once. Finally, Suicide Squad was, to me, fine but only as an action movie where you could switch off and just watch it without the use of any brain cells. Now we have Patty Jenkins’ newest edition to the franchise, Wonder Woman. For a while I had high hopes for this movie, but in the back of my mind I was really worried it was going to be another bomb for DC. I really had no reason to be worried. I know that now, because Wonder Woman knocked it out of the park as both a superhero film, and just as a well made movie in and of itself.

After the events of Batman v. Superman, Diana Prince, also known as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), is working in France at the Louvre. She receives a package from Bruce Wayne one day which shows her with a group of soldiers during World War I. Flashback to the Themyscira, the hidden island of Amazon warriors where Diana was born and raised by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and trained to fight by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright). Things change for Diana when an Alllied pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes within the borders of the island, bringing with him German soldiers that were in close pursuit of his plane. After a battle, Diana decides she must go with Steve to find and stop Ares, the God of War and enemy of the Amazons, who is responsible for the Great War and its continuation. Soon Diane and Steve are off and embattled in the trenches of World War I, where Diana shows who she really is, the Amazonian warrior now known as Wonder Woman.

I’m so pleased that the DCEU finally has a movie that really feels like it’s deeper than the most shallow aspects of its story telling. Wonder Woman is a movie filled with three dimensional characters, clear motivations, conflict, and actual themes that branch out from the singular idea of war. The character of Diana is wonderfully realized. We see her grow up on Themyscira, so by the time she’s an adult, we know who she is and what drives her. The same can be said about Steve Trevor. His explanations to Diana about the world and the brutal war that plagues it shows what his true intentions are. Gal Gadot is excellent as Wonder Woman and brings both a sense of naïvety and strength. This is Diana’s first taste of the outside world, and it’s interesting to see her character in this as opposed to who she was in Batman v. Superman. Chris Pine is also really good as Steve Trevor, and supplies a lot of laughs and a lot of character.

So, with the movie taking place during World War I, it would have been easy to make this a very somber and dark movie. That hasn’t stopped the DCEU film makers before, since they seem to want to make all these movies darker than they really need to be. Wonder Woman doesn’t take that route, which was a nice surprise. There’s plenty of drama in the film both on Themyscira and during the war in Europe, but it never gets too bogged down in melodrama. It’s all very appropriately placed. There’s also plenty of humor to be had as well, and it’s pretty good humor for the most part. The main complaint I do have for this movie is that it does seem to try to hard to have more moments than necessary of humor. Some jokes are stretched too long or could have been completely cut altogether. Many of the jokes do hit, but when the whole movie takes a break just to turn into a comedy routine, I kind of switched off. Luckily, there’s only a few instances of this, which is not nearly enough to be stressed too much.

With this being a superhero movie, the action better be good. That’s one thing I think the DCEU has had going for it. A lot of people disagree with me on this, but I think the action in all three of the franchise’s movies leading up to this one had good action. Wonder Woman also has great action set pieces that are combined with some really over the top special effects, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some of the CGI is noticeably CGI, but it creates an almost otherworldy visual flair which works for some of the most over the top action sequences. Slow motion and tricky camera work is also utilized to show just how powerful Wonder Woman is, and it’s a blast to watch. All I’ve seen by Patty Jenkins before this is Monster, so I had no idea she could create action scenes this well. They really are a treat to watch.

Wonder Woman is exactly what I wanted it to be and more. This was a swashbuckling, heartfelt super hero movie with brains, brawn, and wonderfully realized characters that are believable, even in a movie about Wonder Woman. The DCEU better look at this movie and see that this is how their movies need to be made. Superhero films just can’t rely on crazy action and recognizable names and faces. They need way more than that, and Wonder Woman delivers. In a world where Hollywood is oversaturated with superhero film, Wonder Woman is a reminder of just how well these movies can be done.

Final Grade: A-

Anthropoid – Review

5 May

In 1942, an assassination attempt on one of the Third Reich’s most despicable leaders, Reinhard Heydrich, was undertaken by a group of Czech agents working alongside operative in England. This mission was appropriately called Operation Anthropoid. The implications of this mission helped redefine the Allies’ actions in these stages of Word War II, but even with all that, this isn’t a story that I’ve seen told in a mainstream motion picture. There have been films that have told this story before, so please pardon my ignorance. Sean Ellis’ 2016 film, Anthropoid, is one of these films to tell the story of these often times forgotten Czech heroes. While this is a really solid film, there are some storytelling choices and pacing issues that hold it back from being a real war classic, but it’s certainly one that I’m really glad to have seen.

In 1941, Jozef Gabčik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), two Czechoslovakian agents, are dropped into Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. Their mission is to meet up with the underground resistance in Prague to ultimately assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe). They soon meet up with the head of the resistance, Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones), and begin planning their mission. As time goes on, the two agents begin to immerse themselves in their homeland once again, but their time is soon cut short when it is revealed that Heydrich is being reassigned to another post in France. This forces Jozef and Jan to push their plans forward, but to great risk to themselves and the people of Czechoslovakia.

Movies about World War II are everywhere, so it’s important for film makers to work hard and make their film unique from all the rest. Is Anthropoid a gleaming example of a unique WWII drama? In a sense, yes, and in another sense, no. The major pitfalls of this film happen early on, which is a good thing, but I was really worried for a good portion of the story that nothing special would really come from what I was watching. The first half of Anthropoid has the job of setting up the true to life history of the story while also creating some dramatic fiction to get the viewer more invested in the characters. The problem with that is that the true story is interesting enough, and the embellishments that the film makers added in were distracting and ultimately added to nothing. This is where the core of my worries came because these useless plot points stretched on for way too long. What I’m really trying to say is that the set up wasn’t necessarily overlong, but it was clunky and unfocused. Not every movie needs a romantic relationship… Seriously.

Where Anthropoid really hits is in its second half. With their mission moved forward, the team are forced to make some really tough decisions, which leads to some really harrowing and suspenseful scenes with explosive payoffs that left me feeling exhausted. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s one of those kinds of movies. I felt like I needed to sleep until the next day once these credits started to roll. The tension in this movie is wound so tight that Hitchcock, himself, would have been proud. What helps with this is the authenticity that is clearly present throughout the entirety of this movie. Sean Ellis and his team worked really hard to recreate Prague in the 1940s, which I will get more into later. A lot of the actual locations were used in the shoots, and everything that couldn’t be filmed was meticulously recreated. This is what movies are all about, and this alone saves the movie from the rough start that plagues it.

Now, while the story has a rough start and picks up later one, the design of Anthropoid is on point for the its entirety. This is a great looking movie and that’s one of its main saviors. Like I said, there are sets that are meticulously recreated to be exact replicas of real life locations. The most impressive is a cathedral set where the climax of the film happens. It’s an enormous and very well crafted replica that looks exactly like the real thing. This film is also shot using mostly handheld cameras, but it never gets too out of control. There are movies that exist that use this style to make it seem more real, but they go overboard and move the camera so much you can’t even tell what’s going on. Ellis shows great restraint with the camera and knows exactly when to make it kinetic and when to slow the movements down.

Anthropoid is a solid World War II thriller that tells a story that I knew nothing about. It’s a very well acted and well shot film that’s full of tension, excitement, and visceral drama. The only thing holding it down is the first 35 minutes or so. It’s not that this part of the movie is terrible, but it felt like nothing was really amounting to anything. For anyone interested in the more clandestine side of World War II, I can easily recommend Anthropoid.

Final Grade: B+

The Great Wall – Review

3 Mar

I recently did a review for Zhang Yimou’s 2011 war drama, The Flowers of War. In that review, I mention that Yimou is a very respectable film maker who has an especially strong talent for filming what I believe to be some of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen. His latest film is The Great Wall, a monster movie that involves protecting the Imperial City from creatures hell bent on destroying civilization as we know it. That combined with Yimou’s colorful and sweeping directorial style kind of made this a must see for me. Well, all I can say is that this film definitely looks great. That’s pretty much where the compliments end.

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William (Matt Damon) and Pero (Pedro Pascal) are two mercenaries scouring the East looking for “black powder,” which we now know as gunpowder. During their search, they end up at the Great Wall of China and are questioned about their intentions immediately upon their arrival. The two partners soon learn why the soldiers at the wall are so concerned about their motives. During a seemingly quiet afternoon, the wall is raided by alien monsters called the Tao Tie, whose goal is to penetrate the wall and continue on to the Imperial City. It doesn’t take long for William to come to a decision as to wether he wants to escape with Pero and another Englishman, Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), or if he would rather stay and defend the Great Wall with the newly appointed general, Lin Mae (Jing Tian).

I was excited for this movie for multiple reasons. First off, I was pumped to see Zhang Yimou tackle a big budget monster movie and have his style painted all over the movie. I was also just pumped to see another monster movie from Legendary, which has pretty much become the monster movie company for America. In these ways, the movie does succeed. When battles start happening, I got really into it. The special effects look kind of cartoony, but for some reason, that didn’t really bother me. I was taken aback by Yimou’s use of color and framing scenes to make them look as epic as possible. One of these shots in particular happened in the very first battle where you can see most of the battle in one super wide shot. Another really cool thing are the different regiments of the soldiers and the uniforms they wear to identify themselves. Honestly, in terms of style and scope, this movie stands tall.

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Like I said before, that’s pretty much where all of the good stuff ends. The Great Wall really isn’t all that good of a movie despite having a really cool premise. My biggest problem was the characters. I haven’t seen such poor development and writing in a really long time. Any scene that didn’t involve a battle or special effect of some kind fell flat. Like completely, utterly flat. It’s incredible how an epic period piece featuring alien monsters attacking the Great Wall of China could be so boring. There are a few characters worth something, but that’s not saying to much. William’s partner Pero has a good amount of one liners and a story that at least attempts to go somewhere before that’s shut down by some idiotic decisions from the writers. Lin Mae is also a pretty cool character who feels the most human out of anyone else. The worst offender of characters not worth anything is Sir Ballard. If you were to take Willem Dafoe out of this movie, nothing would be different. He’s completely wasted here.

I was also really bothered by the acting in this movie, but part of this also has to fall on the writers. There was so much clunky and awkward dialogue in this movie which only made me more distracted during the down time that I’ve already complained was boring enough. Like I said before, the only exceptions from this are Pero and Lin Mae. They weren’t perfect, but they were better than the rest. Honestly though, I was mostly shocked at how flat and uninspired Matt Damon was. I didn’t know until the end of the movie that he was supposed to be European, and I still don’t know exactly where he’s supposed to be from. His accent is on and off throughout the whole movie, and the way he delivers his lines is cringeworthy. Aside from his weird accent, he uses this over the top tough guy voice that wore thin on me after the second line of dialogue he had.

The Great Wall is a very disappointing movie. Throughout its run time, I saw a lot of hope for potential, but nothing really came of it. I will say that this is a fantastic looking movie with cool creature design and some excellent use of lighting and costume design. Everything else from the characters and their development to the structure of the narrative is flat, recycled, or just plain boring. As a monster movie, it works at the most basic of levels. As a movie to be appreciated and viewed for something more than that, it’s a failure.

Final Grade: C-