movie reviews January 2016

the revenantthe hateful eight13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of BenghaziThe 5th Wave

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The 5th Wave
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Teen/alien movies are a recent entry into a list of film genres, that is if you want to label such movies such as The Last Starfighter (1984) and I Am Number Four (2011) as teens meet or battle or help aliens as a genre. Most are mediocre to the extreme. The possible exceptions being The Faculty (1998), directed by Robert Rodriguez and Super 8 (2011) directed by J.J. Abrams with Steven Spieberg as one of the producers.

The most recent is The 5th Wave directed J Blakeson, who is not threat to the directorial standing of either Rodriguez or Abrams. The film picks up most elements from a young adult novel by Rick Yancey, a book considered the first in a trilogy. The novel generally has been greeted favorably, being cited by Wikipedia as “blurring the lines between young adult and adult fiction.” The film, however, does more in blurring the lines between logic and ridiculousness.

Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz) is an ordinary teenager pinning after football jock Ben Parish (Nick Robinson). Little else in her life disrupts her thinking — mom (Maggie Siff), dad (Ron Livingston) and little brother Sammy (Zackary Arthur) provide security and comfort in her life. That begins to unravel when the alien ship shows up.

Soon the aliens send the first wave. Power is gone — no electricity, no Internet, all mechanical power disabled. Then come the massive earthquakes. Dams break apart flooding the interior land as huge tsunamis hit the coastlines. In the third wave a type of bird flu kills millions including Cassie’s mother. With her father and Sammy, Cassie retreats to a camp of survivors in the woods away from the city where the remaining populations struggle to survive.

While in the camp soldiers show up, their Humvees run fine. They separate the adults from the children under the pretense of keeping the children safe because now the aliens can appear as adult humans while the children cannot. Leading the soldiers is Liev Schreiber as Colonel Vosch.
Anyone who has not left the theater by now will recognize that Vosch is an alien. (In another embarrassing use of a fine actor like Schreiber, Maria Bello plays Sgt. Reznick, an alien drill sergeant.) The soldiers kill the remaining civilian adults in the camp. Cassie managed to miss the bus carting the children to an army base while retrieving Sammy’s stuffed bear. After seeing the dead adults, Cassie decides to rescue her little brother. The stuffed animal goes with her, managing to make it through the entire film. Maybe director Blakeson means it as a symbol of teen determination.

While trampling through the woods she is shot then rescued by Evan Walker (Alex Roe), a hybrid human alien who now decides the humans aren’t so bad because he’s been taught was love is. The meaning of love is just one broad theme quickly dispensed with in the movie along with mass extinction, psychological manipulation and the use of child soldiers as combatants.

The film doesn’t linger long on any big question (call that an insult to young adults); the story-line quest is to leave things hanging — like where did the aliens go after Evan blew up the army base and did he survive the bedlam he created ‘cause Cassie wants to know. Bets are that those answers will come in the sequel. Hopefully, it’s not called “The 6th Wave.” (PG-13) Rating: 1.5. (Posted on 01/26/2016)

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

A decade and a half after Pearl Harbor, the interim devoted primarily to a seemingly endless stream of “Transformers” flicks, director Michael Bay turns again to US history for inspiration. Drawing this time from more recent historical events, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi recounts the 2012 terrorist attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA base in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the death of four Americans, most prominently, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Or, more accurately, the film proffers one version of those events told from the point of view of the American security contractors who defended the sites (as presented in Mitchell Zuckoff's non-fiction book 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi) and, ultimately, filtered through the aesthetic of Hollywood's master of big, loud and dumb.

The film begins almost documentary style with a black title card declaring bluntly, "This is a true story,” followed by a protracted history of the US involvement in Libya. Yet the film quickly unfolds as just another of Bay’s good-guys vs. bad-guys boom-fests.

The good guys are a team of six security contractors, including its most recent addition, Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski). Known as “Global Response Staff,” or GRS, they’re essentially mercenaries for the CIA, cocky, buff ex-military types with bushy beards and monosyllabic nicknames like “Oz,” “Tig,” and “Boon.” Screenwriter Chuck Hogan provides little to flesh-out these characters (in his downtime, one member ludicrously reads aloud from Joseph Campbell‘s The Power of Myth), and in the midst of battle, they’re virtually indistinguishable. Each has a wife and kids back home, but strategically placed family photos and scenes of them face-timing with wives and children are included solely for tear-jerk effect.

Equally one-dimensional, the bad guys come in two varieties: the terrorist attackers, who appear as nameless, faceless targets in night-vision scopes; and, more insidious, the enemies within — the U.S. intelligence workers, those elitist, pencil-pushing Yale and Harvard graduates who lack the guts of our warriors-for-hire. At best, the film suggests, they’re an ineffective lot; at worst, they’re criminally liable for the tragedy that unfolds.

Chief among these pencil-necks is the condescending CIA head referred to only as “Chief“ (David Costabile), who never misses a chance to remind the security detail that they’re only “hired help.” Early on, several members of the GRS team tour the diplomatic compound and warn that it’s dangerously vulnerable to attack. The assault, then, serves as in-your-face proof that the grunts were right all along.

The firefight that ensues is largely indistinguishable from that of a Transformers movie: low-angle shots of our heroes against the horizon; glorified slow-mo explosions alternating with jittery hand-held camera images; and slap-dash, frantic editing that obscures any meaningful sense of what is happening. Perhaps such confusion approximates the reality of warfare, but on the big screen, it's merely exhausting.

Ultimately, Bay's depiction of war generates sensation without context. Grisly images of injuries sustained by GRS team members hold no more meaning than the fetishized POV shot of a mortar shell as it arcs from launch tube to detonation (itself, a blatant crib of Pearl Harbor's best-known sequence).

Clearly, Bay intends to honor these “secret soldiers,” but his attempt to raise them to mythic status drains them of the very humanity that makes their actions worthy of praise. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 01/19/16)

The Hateful Eight
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The two-week, 100-city tour of Quentin Tarantino’s latest release — his eighth, as noted in the opening credits — marked the widest release of a wide-screen, 70-millimeter Panavision film in 20 years.  While the roadshow, the official nostalgia-inducing name of the tour, gave audiences a better look at the work of director of photography and three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson, the digital version, minus a few awkward, abrupt about-faces in focus, is an equally adequate way to view the muddle of this genre mash-up.

The story begins in a stagecoach. The American Civil War has ended, but not so the bitter feelings it aroused. John Ruth (Kurt Russell), the bounty hunter known as the Hangman, is traveling to Red Rock, WY, with his quarry, Daisy Domergue, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh with a stridency not seen since her performance as Sadie Flood, a wannabe punk singer with a mood disorder and a mean case of sibling rivalry, in 1995’s Georgia. Domergue, according to Ruth, is destined to hang, and he has the paperwork to prove it, though he doesn’t disclose or seem to know much else about the captured fugitive.

There’s a storm brewing in the mountains, and Ruth reluctantly agrees to pick up two unlikely hitchhikers: First, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a legendary officer in the Union army known for burning down a prisoner of war camp and fellow bounty hunter, and then Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a Southern renegade who claims he’s on his way to claim his position as the new sheriff of Red Rock. They reach Minnie’s Haberdashery, a rustic outpost offering coffee, stew and penny candy, where they meet up with Bob (Demián Bichir), a fur-clad Mexican acting as a substitute for the missing Minnie; Joe Gage, a brooding dime store cowboy (Michael Madsen); Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a British dandy posing as the Red Rock hangman, and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former confederate general on a pilgrimage to find his son.

At 187 minutes, the movie strives for epic proportions. Yet, the drama, based on murder mysteries and horror films, feels meager and silly. As suspicious and cautious as Ruth first makes himself out to be, he’s no Miss Marple; taking at face value the background stories supplied by the other strays — ironic for a filmmaker whose first movie centered on the art of authenticity in storytelling — and all but ignoring two important clues: the broken door and a lone jellybean on the floor. Instead, performances, cartoonish in their buffoonery, are played for laughs.

Ruth backhands Domergue for speaking out of turn, and she reacts by grinning, for comic effect. Jackson delivers a typical Tarantino monologue, but without the threatening righteousness of the “great vengeance and furious anger” speech in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino, particularly in the second act, breaks the spell cast by the set up in a way that is an unforgivable failing of the movie. The film isn’t so much hateful as it is merely smirking. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/14/16)

The Revenant
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The men who inhabit the hostile landscape of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s latest movie are stubbornly single-minded. An Arikara chief, searching for his kidnapped daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk'o), ambushes all in his way. A southern trapper, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), risks life and limb, especially if they aren’t his own, to claim his promised bounty. Our presumed hero, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) refuses to die by several means through the sheer will of his vengeful desire.

The film, based on true events and adapted by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith from Michael Punke's The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, begins in 1823 in what is not yet Montana and follows the trail of betrayal, greed and violence to Fort Kiowa, in what was not yet South Dakota. This journey, shot using only natural light by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, is undeniably stunning, even if what lies at the heart of the movie is essentially hollow and grotesque.

A fur-trapping expedition, under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is cut short by Arikara hostilities. The survivors, a mix of soldiers and mercenary civilian trappers, are forced to take the long, mountainous route back to the camp, where Glass, attempting to fulfill his duties as scout, is flailed by an angry momma bear — an almost tangible force, despite its CG nature, that flings DiCaprio around like he’s nothing more than a rag doll.

To save themselves, the troop leaves Glass in the care of his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and another young hunter, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), who refuses to leave the two behind alone. It’s a recurring theme in this movie that anyone taking a moral stance or motivated by goodness comes to a bad end, and it begins here. Fitzgerald, who agrees to stay only for the cash bonus, expedites the situation for his own safety, and Bridger becomes his dogsbody; Hawk gets it worse.

In one of two rebirths in the movie, Glass survives to dig himself out of his own grave and vows to exact revenge on Fitzgerald. During the execution of this quest, in flashbacks over which a breathy voiceover intones, Iñárritu channels Terrence Malick, particularly 2005’s The New World, which Lubezki shot for the reclusive director. Again, there’s much beauty to be found in these mystical scenes, but little resonates emotionally. Why are our sympathies directed toward Glass and not the Arikara chief whose daughter could be experiencing, at the hands of French trappers, the same fate as Glass’ wife?

The only sentiments allowed on screen are corrupt and delivered without ambiguity. The best, kindest soul comes in the form of a Pawnee, who shares medical care, food and shelter with Glass, which guarantees to be repaid with his own violent end. Iñárritu lets no good deed go unpunished. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/14/16)


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