Posts Tagged action

The Wall

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Doug Liman.                   Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and Laith Nakli.

Two soldiers, a sniper, and a crumbling stone wall. As Scott Renshaw pointed out, this scenario basically writes and films itself, which makes the occasional stumbles all the more frustrating. Even with those stumbles, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) does a good job of milking this premise, crafting a tense thriller in which a cat and mouse game is set against the backdrop of the “won” Iraq War.

Criticism of the Iraq War and the notion that there could be any victory from that mess abounds throughout the film. The first title card tells us in 2007 the USA declared victory and the war was over, but the irony and dishonesty of that claim is highlighted by the opening shot of two soldiers camouflaged as they observe an oil pipeline where soldiers had been ambushed by an attack. Later, when the sniper hacks their radio signal, he asks them what they’re still doing in his country if the war is over. Finally, the closing shot will remain one of the most surprising conclusions of any film this year, and it strongly reinforces the notion that the Iraq War is unwinnable.

The film’s politics are unmistakable, but they are never heavy handed, and they provide added tension to the confrontation between Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the unseen sniper (Laith Nakli). Less successful is the backstory for Sgt. Isaac which is hinted at throughout the film, but when it’s made explicit in the last act, it comes across as a half-baked attempt at guilt and trauma which adds nothing to the psychological and physical standoff between the soldier and the sniper.

The other major misstep of the film is the scriptwriter Dwain Worrell’s decision to make the sniper a genius psychopath more knowledgeable than Hannibal Lecter who knows everything going on inside Isaac’s head, has orchestrated his plan to the last unexpected detail, and is fazed by literally nothing. Eventually, the characterization begins to approach caricature.

However, the cat and mouse game is largely successful due to the commitment of the actors and Liman’s skilled directing. At ninety minutes, the film moves along briskly even as it never changes location. I questioned the wisdom of a couple cuts to the sniper’s point of view – they really dissipated the tension – but otherwise, the editing brilliantly redirects our attention from the one soldier to the other, to the wall, to the corpses scattered around the pipeline, and to any possible location of the sniper. Liman knows precisely where to place the camera to achieve a balance between knowing what is happening and feeling just disoriented enough to share in the soldiers’ confusion and discomfort.

The Wall doesn’t make the most of its premise, but it gets enough out of it to be an engaging and thoughtful thriller with a worthwhile cross examination of the costs of invading Iraq, and Doug Liman proves his chops for directing action sequences once again.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Frequent obscene language, intense violence, including brief but graphic images of bullet wounds.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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Free Fire

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Ben Wheatley.                  Starring Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, and Michael Smiley.

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I thought Free Fire would be a fun, fast-paced, if violent, action film in which immoral characters exchange witty insults while revealing flickerings of their shared humanity. I was badly mistaken.

Free Fire supposedly has a run time of an hour and a half. I say supposedly, because I would have sworn I was sitting in the theater a lot longer than that. This thing slogs along through a black market gun deal gone wrong as slowly as the bullet ridden bodies drag themselves through the ultimate Mexican standoff which said deal devolves into. I forget at which point precisely this thought occurred to me, and I never imagined I would say this in my entire life; however, this film would have been a lot better had Quentin Tarantino directed it.

Tarantino making this film might have caused some new problems, namely the already nasty violence may have been slightly nastier (but only slightly), but on the other hand, it would have had a pulse, it would have had witty snappy dialogue, and it would have had characters we care about – or at least characters with memorably fascinating quirks, unlike the nondescript sacks of meat filling each other with lead that occupy the run time here.

Ben Wheatley directs a script he co-wrote with Amy Jump, and the two of them edit as well. I’m not entirely sure edit is the right word, because the incoherent jumble of images is nearly impossible to follow, especially as the script randomly throws new characters into the mix without ever wasting any time on trivialities such as character development. If the goal was to show it’s impossible to tell who’s shooting at whom, I suppose the film succeeds at that, but the aggressive editing doesn’t make us reflect on the cost of violence. Since it’s so much work to keep track of anything going on, it just makes it a relief when bullet bank #4 finally bites the dust – that’s one less thing to keep track of.

On the very light plus side, Armie Hammer actually manages to create a character from the practically non-existent material he’s given to work with. Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy come close as well.

At some point during pre-production, there was definitely a good idea about the dark humor of a ruthless Mexican standoff, with some worthy nods to themes of violence begetting violence and making it impossible to distinguish allies from foes. Sadly, it seems that was the first causality caught in the crossfires of this mess of a film.

Personal Recommendation: D+

Content Advisory: Graphic violence, some of it quite nasty, and frequent obscene language throughout.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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Hail, Caesar!

Year of release: 2016          Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.       Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, and Michael Gambon.

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If there is one thing that the Coen brothers have proven throughout their entire career it is that they are masters of assembling oddball ensembles and intertwining their lives in ways that are both funny and/or tragic. Hail, Caesar! lands firmly on the funny side, and it is an intelligent and enjoyable tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, impressively balancing one of the largest ensembles the Coen brothers have created.

At the center of Hail, Caesar’s! eccentric ensemble is Josh Brolin’s everyman producer Eddie Mannix whose job is to clean up messes which the stars get themselves into and make sure all productions for Capitol Pictures roll along smoothly. After seeing Brolin as the idiotic Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men and the dimwitted but menacing Tom Chaney in True Grit, he turns in an equally impressive performance as the quick-thinking straight man who must balance all the flailing comic acts which surround him.

Those acts include: George Clooney’s bender-prone megastar Baird Whitlock who gets kidnapped; Alden Ehrenreich’s stuntman cowboy Hobie Doyle whom the studio is determined to turn into a serious actor; Ralph Fiennes’ self-serious drama director Laurence Laurentz who can’t abide the lousy acting of Doyle; Tilda Swinton’s bMV5BMjM4Njg1Nzg4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDI3MTA2NzE@._V1__SX1303_SY579_usybody reporter; Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing and singing Burt Gurney, the studio’s other megastar; Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran, the scandal-prone megastar who must maintain a pure, innocent public persona; and Frances McDormand’s hilariously crusty film editor.

That’s not even all the characters, and as much fun as it is to watch the Coens juggle all the acts successfully, some of the stretches in between are not nearly as inspired. However, the series of extended cameos are delightful, and they alone make the film worth watching at least twice. Ralph Fiennes proves once again that he is brilliant comedic actor, continuing the success he had in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Channing Tatum and Tilda Swinton both steal every scene they are in. Aldren Ehrenreich’s southern drawl fits the Coen’s dialogue perfectly, and Michael Gambon’s narration sets the mood for a tribute to an era of storytelling now past.

At the center of all the shenanigans is the filming of Capitol Pictures’ prestige Biblical epic Hail, Caesar! – a tale of the Christ (a tagline originally from Ben-Hur). And Christ features into this movie in several ways. From the opening shot of a crucifix looking down on the audience, to Mannix’s frequenting the sacrament of Confession, to a dispute about the nature of God among a Catholic priest, an Orthodox patriarch, a Protestant minister, and a Jewish rabbi, and to the filming of the titular tale of the Christ, the Son of God and faith are what tie the film together.

Even more remarkably, this is one of the most straightforward, sympathetic, non-cynical portrayals of faith that the Coens have ever done. There are some lighthearted jabs at the difference of opinions among various denominations, but those are in a spirit of laughing with the characters not at them. The overall attitude is one of respect for faith, which is integral to Mannix’s work in maintaining the movie business which the Coens so obviously love. A scene toward the end drives home the idea of vocation in a way that is both dramatically satisfying and spiritually rewarding.

In addition to the good natured jokes about religious differences, Hail, Caesar! also intelligently plays upon and subverts classic film stereotypes from the ’50’s. The foolishness of egotistical actors is the main concern of Mannix’s job and a frequent source of humor. A subplot involving a MacGuffin is handled with a brilliant dose of the Coens’ trademark dark humor, showing the characters involved that they are not in control like they think.

Mannix also believes he is in control of his life and all the studio’s productions. However, the film is framed by shots which remind the audience that no one is in complete control of his or her own life, a theme which has shown up in nearly every Coen film from Blood Simple to Inside Llewyn Davis. However, unlike the unrepentant, self-centered league of morons from Burn After Reading, some of these characters take notice of the grace which surrounds them, and the religious imagery that overshadows the film can affect anyone who chooses to allow it to. With a large cast of eccentric characters, skillful tributes to the filmmaking industry, and the idea that grace is available for any fool who seeks it, one thing that is quite simple is that Hail, Caesar! is a Coen brothers’ movie through and through.

 

Content Advisory: A fleeting, mildly suggestive dance move; mild comic violence.   MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Teens and up

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Choice for Best Picture (2016)

Over at 1More Film Blog, Ken Morefield asked for essays on what the regular contributors would vote for for Best Picture.

My answer – Mad Max: Fury Road

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Batman Begins

Can you believe it has been ten years since Nolan made Batman Begins?

Anyway, Ken Morefield graciously published my review debating how well the film has held up at 1More Film Blog.

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