Fury

Fury movie poster

When it comes to David Ayer, you know he’s not going to slack off when it comes to researching his movie’s subject matter. His movies like the brilliant “End of Watch” and the underappreciated “Sabotage” had characters dealing with a vicious reality which they are forced to contend with on a regular basis, and Ayer makes us feel how frightening this reality is whether we want to be a part of it or not. That remains the case with “Fury,” a war film which takes us all the way back to the final days of World War II. It features all the usual characters we expect to see in a war film from the hardened Army sergeant to the innocent rookie, but you come out of it knowing what it feels like to be in a tank.

Brad Pitt stars as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the commander of a five-man tank crew which is ordered to make a final push into Nazi Germany during World War II. Don is saddled with a battle ready crew which includes Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Cpl. Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). After losing one of their members, they are suddenly saddled with the most baby-faced rookie imaginable in Army Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Don doesn’t like Norman’s presence one little bit as he feels it threatens everyone’s safety, but his superiors force him to take him on regardless of his objections. As a result, Don is forced to make Norman grow up a lot sooner than he wants, and it’s all in the name of survival.

For a time, I thought that Norman was going to be like Jeremy Davies’ character from “Saving Private Ryan” in that he would be the wimp who wouldn’t have the nerve to kill the enemy until the very end. Don, however, doesn’t have the patience to wait for Norman to grow a pair and forces him to kill a Nazi prisoner early on. Lerman gives a tremendous performance as Norman, and it’s fascinating to watch him go from being an anxiety ridden soldier to a hardened war veteran who doesn’t hesitate to take out as many Nazis as humanly possible.

There haven’t been many tank movies in the history of cinema. The only ones I can think of are Kevin Reynolds’ “The Beast” which came out in 1988 and the Israeli war film “Lebanon” which depicted warfare as witnessed from inside a tank. It’ll be interesting to see how they compare to Fury which puts you right into these characters’ mindsets as they lay waste to their target without the benefit of ear protection. You come to feel as battered and hardened as the crew does during their patrol through enemy territory where they find themselves outnumbered and outgunned.

It’s hard to watch “Fury” without thinking of Pitt’s performance as Aldo Raine in “Inglorious Basterds,” but he does succeed in making “Wardaddy” distinct from that character whether he is sporting facial hair or not. I always enjoy Pitt’s performances when he’s all dirtied up and free of his movie star looks, and this is one of them. You believe Pitt as a war veteran who has seen countless battles and has long since been worn down by them. But for Don, his main concern is keeping his crew alive, and Pitt is great at making you feel his character’s barely hidden vulnerability which is always on the verge of being exposed for all to see

Pena is an Ayer regular, having worked with him previously on “End of Watch,” and he has yet to disappoint in any role he takes on. As Trini, he gives us a character who was one of the many Latino military officers who fought for America back in the 1940’s. From start to finish, Pena makes Trini a war weary character who is not far from falling apart, and it makes for an intense performance.

I also give applause to Bernthal whose performance as Grady may not get all the recognition it deserves. On one hand Grady is a loathsome character we cannot stand to be around, but on the other he’s just a soldier trying to survive this war anyway he can. It’s rare to see an actor who makes you despise and sympathize with a character simultaneously, and Bernthal succeeds in pulling it off.

Another impressive performance in “Fury” comes from Shia LaBeouf as Boyd. Like Private Daniel Jackson in “Saving Private Ryan,” this guy is a trained killer but also quick to spout off passages from the Bible. Even after taking out a Nazi tank, he will still quote passages from that book with a great passion. LaBeouf got a lot of press for the method work he did on “Fury” which included pulling out a tooth, but seeing this movie is to be assured that all the work paid off for him.

Whether or not you consider “Fury” to be one of the best World War II movies ever made, it is one of the strongest to come out in the past few years. Ayer makes you feel the anxiety and exhaustion these soldiers go through while in battle, and you come out of this movie feeling as battered as they do. I very much liked what it had to offer, and I liked how Ayer didn’t try to sugarcoat reality for anyone in the slightest. That’s what makes his movies so unique and visceral.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman vs Superman poster

What a relief it is that “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” has finally opened in theaters everywhere. Few movies have been dissected and criticized as deeply as this one even before its release, and it got to where it felt like decade had passed since Warner Brothers announced it as happening. After a while we all wanted to yell out, “Just release the damn movie already!” Clearly, Warner Brothers has A LOT riding on this particular superhero movie, and it is aiming to create its own comic book cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s.

Well, the best way to describe “Batman v Superman” is that it is, in a word, dour. Director Zack Snyder certainly gives us some spectacular action set pieces, but the whole movie is undone by a sense of joylessness. In keeping with Christopher Nolan’s superhero aesthetic of grounding these characters in reality, a lot of the fun and joy we have had in watching them do battle with the forces of evil feels absent this time around.

So why does Batman/Bruce Wayne have a such a bone to pick with Superman/Clark Kent anyway? Well it all goes back to the climax of “Man of Steel” where Superman did battle with General Zod over the skies of Metropolis to where a record number of buildings were reduced to rubble. One of them was the Wayne Enterprises building, and despite Bruce’s best efforts, he is unable to rescue all his employees from certain death and blames Superman that. As for Superman, he thinks Batman is too dangerous and seeks to expose Gotham’s vigilante and put an end to his reign.

Meanwhile, LexCorp mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is ever so eager to get his hands on the kryptonite from Zod’s failed terraforming experiment in the Indian Ocean as well as his body. While we all know Luthor gets super excited about real estate, those interests are shoved to the side as he is intent to reveal the duality of god and man. This all leads to an epic conclusion in which Lex unveils a monster which could very well destroy Batman and Superman in a way nothing else can.

One of the big problems with “Batman v Superman” is it tries to accomplish too much in its bloated running time of 151 minutes. This was the same problem with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” which also sought to create its own cinematic universe to where it became an unforgivable mess. “Batman v Superman” is a better movie as Snyder is able to keep a lot of the thematic elements in balance, but there’s still too many subplots and characters to deal with and not enough time to become fully engaged on an emotional level with everything going on.

When Marvel created their own cinematic universe, they took their sweet time and were never in a rush to bombard us with too much right away. They started out with “Iron Man” and then brought other iconic superheroes to the screen that we quickly came to root for. When the first “Avengers” movie finally came out, we were ready to see our favorite Marvel characters join forces to battle an alien threat because the groundwork had been laid slowly and carefully.

On the other hand, Sony and Warner Brothers could barely wait to start their own cinematic universes, and as a result we have gotten overstuffed movies which feel more like overlong commercials for others that have yet to be made.

Snyder is not a bad director he has given us some terrific movies like “Dawn of the Dead” (one of the few horror remakes worth watching), the visual epic “300” and “Watchmen.” Clearly he had a lot on his plate with this movie’s sprawling subplots he could only be so successful with. His starting out with young Bruce Wayne watching his parents get murdered is unnecessary as we have seen this traumatic event played out many times before. We all know about Bruce’s dark past and how he became Batman, so this could have easily been skipped over.

Perhaps Snyder’s biggest setback with “Batman v Superman” is his overuse of special effects. There’s never a shortage of explosions, and he does pull off some impressive scenes like when Batman does battle with a dozen terrorists. But after a while the whole endeavor feels like one long video game with moments which brazenly defy logic. You come out of this movie wishing he had worked harder on the story’s emotional component, but when you have a ridiculously large budget of over $200 million, you are obligated to make sure the money’s up there on the screen.

For what it’s worth, the casting is spot on. Many balked at Ben Affleck being cast as the Caped Crusader, but he does solid work as Batman and Bruce Wayne, a CEO who actually looks after his workers’ needs and safety. While he can’t quite hold a candle to the best cinematic Batman of them all, Michael Keaton (Christian Bale is a very close second), he makes Bruce and his alter ego appropriately brooding and damaged. Affleck also has the requisite shirtless scene which shows how much time he has spent at the gym (his biceps are massive).

Cavill continues to do very good, if not overly impressive, work as Superman/Clark Kent as he makes the Man of Steel a noble and conflicted person on a planet whose inhabitants are not sure what to make of him. Amy Adams remains a wonderful choice to portray Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne plays things a little broadly as Daily Planet editor Perry White, Holly Hunter is terrific as a US Senator hell bent on stopping Lex Luthor’s evil plans, and Jeremy Irons proves to be an inspired choice to play Alfred.

Then there’s Jesse Eisenberg who portrays Lex Luthor as if he were an infinitely psychotic Mark Zuckerberg. Eisenberg is never boring, but he never comes across as truly menacing. He does, however, share some strong moments with Hunter as they verbally spar with one another. The screenplay by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer gives them some sharp dialogue which really stings, and it would have been great if there was more of it to go around.

But the one who steals the show here is Gal Gadot who plays Diana Prince and her alter ego Wonder Woman. Every time she appears onscreen, the movie comes to life as she battles her foes without an ounce of fear on her beautiful face. Like Affleck, many voiced their opposition to her being cast, and it’s nice to see her get the last laugh on those who doubted her.

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is by no means a terrible movie, and many DC Comic fans will likely get a kick out of it. It also benefits from a conclusion which is far more emotional than we could have expected. However, there never seems to be any joy or exhilaration to be found here, and it makes this motion picture feel like an exercise in tedium. Plus, we only get one big fight between Batman and Superman which proves to be anti-climactic as the trailers have long since revealed that these two end up joining forces to battle an ever bigger threat. What looked like the comic book movie to end all comic book movies instead proves to be a big disappointment. Still, we do have “Suicide Squad” to look forward to.

* * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

Jason Bourne

Jason Bourne poster

In a summer filled with superhero movies and blockbusters filled with aliens looking to decimate planet Earth, it’s nice to see one with an earthbound action hero who hurts and bleeds like the rest of us. That’s the great thing about watching Matt Damon as Jason Bourne; he makes this formerly amnesiac soldier completely human even as he performs superhuman feats. And now the latest Bourne adventure, simply titled “Jason Bourne,” has Damon reuniting with director Paul Greengrass in another globe-trotting adventure that has Bourne, or David Webb if you want to call him by his real name, once again risking his life more often than not. What results is one of the most solidly entertaining movies to come out in a rather blah summer movie season.

We catch up with Bourne several years after the events of “The Bourne Ultimatum” as he makes a living participating in illegal fighting rings. Bourne has since recovered from his amnesia to where he remembers everything, but he still finds himself haunted by what he has done and plagued by demons he can only expunge by beating up opponents, sometimes with a single punch. But then Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) turns up out of the blue to give Bourne some important information regarding Bourne’s father, Richard Webb (Gregg Henry). Just when you thought Bourne was done with the past, it turns out he doesn’t actually remember everything, or at least not yet.

I still vividly remember watching “The Bourne Ultimatum” at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles when it came out in 2007. Few action movies thrilled me the way “Ultimatum” did as Greengrass grounded it in a reality not all that different from our own. Both he and Damon know what makes these movies ticks, and this proves to be “Jason Bourne’s” greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Some have called this entry in the franchise “The Bourne Familiarity,” and it’s not hard to understand why. It follows many of the same beats of its predecessors to where the freshness we discovered in “The Bourne Identity” is largely lost here. Still, “Jason Bourne” is still a pulse-pounding thrill ride as we are led from one insane action set piece to another to where we can’t catch our breath.

Aside from Damon, Stiles is the only actor from previous installments to appear in “Jason Bourne.” This time around we are introduced to a new set of CIA employees that are either out to terminate Bourne or eager to learn more about him. Among them is CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) who is eager to punish Bourne for his exposure of the Blackbriar program. Dewey is also heading the Iron Hand program, a Treadstone for the new millennium, and it’s no surprise that while he doesn’t intend to make the same mistakes, it’s highly likely he will make a bunch of new ones.

Jones is great fun to watch here as he is so devilish in his portrayal of a man eager to bury the past in order to ensure the security of America’s future. You never catch “The Fugitive” actor playing Dewey as a one-dimensional bad guy, but instead as a man eager to control the uncontrollable. Not once does Jones overact here as he warns others not to tell Bourne all they know, and he is an actor who doesn’t need to speak up much to show just how threatening he can be. It’s great to see him react to the havoc Bourne brings to his carefully laid plans as he does his best to remain cool under pressure.

But I have to tell you, the person almost steals “Jason Bourne” from Damon and Jones is recent Oscar winner Alicia Vikander who portrays the head of the CIA Cyber Ops Division, Heather Lee. Vikander is to “Jason Bourne” as Rebecca Ferguson was to “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation;” a wonderfully enigmatic character whose motives are never entirely clear until the very end. Some will complain that Vikander gives an emotionless performance here, but that’s missing the point. Her character is one who has to hold her cards close to her chest as any reveal could compromise not just her, but the movie as a whole. You can’t take your eyes off of Vikander as she grabs your attention from start to finish.

Greengrass still knows how to direct an action movie to maximum impact. As with “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Ultimatum,” he succeeds in putting you into the action as opposed to making you sit comfortably in your seat. The shaky cam remains a favorite of his which will drive some audience members nuts, but it serves to make all those bullets, car chases and punches feel all the more visceral. As “Jason Bourne” reaches its furious climax, Greengrass keeps our pulses pounding as we wonder how much more damage its hero can take.

Speaking of car chases, Greengrass still comes up with the craziest ones ever. This movie has Bourne chasing down a nameless “Asset” (played by Vincent Cassel) up and down the Las Vegas strip. It’s hard to remember the last time so many parked cars were destroyed in a movie, but “Jason Bourne” may very well have set a new record. While we watch this chase confident Bourne will survive, you still wonder how he will survive when he’s racing at speeds even Sammy Hagar wouldn’t approve of.

“Jason Bourne” doesn’t feel quite as thrilling as “The Bourne Ultimatum” did, and the familiarity it shares with its predecessors does take away from the excitement a bit. But after a seven-year break, Damon and Greengrass still know how to get our adrenaline pumping to where we come out of the theatre thoroughly exhausted. In a summer that feels surprisingly low on thrill rides, we finally have one which delivers.

There’s certainly room for another Bourne adventure in the future, but here’s hoping our hero looks forward instead of back. That should make a future installment stand on its own a bit more.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Rio Bravo’

Rio Bravo movie poster

I have a confession to make; for years I had never seen a John Wayne western before. I was certainly aware of who he was and of how he is seen as an American hero to many. There is an airport in Orange County named after him, and it houses an enormous statue of him in his western gear that towers over all those taking a flight out of there. Wayne is as conservative as an actor can get in Hollywood, and there are certain people I know personally who don’t want to watch his movies because of that. But come one, we’re here to watch a movie, not debate politics! If I can sit through a Chuck Norris movie, there’s no reason why I can’t see a John Wayne movie.

Rio Bravo” was directed by Howard Hawks and it is widely regarded as one of the greatest westerns ever made. It was made by Hawks and Wayne as a “right wing response” to “High Noon” in which Gary Cooper played a sheriff who urged the townspeople to join him in defending the town they live in. In “Rio Bravo” Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, a man who has no time at for amateurs and will deal only with professionals who know what they are doing. That should give you a good idea of how pissed off Wayne was at Cooper.

The plot revolves around Chance guarding a prisoner named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) who murdered another man at a bar for no good reason. Working with Chance are an old cripple named Stumpy (Walter Brennan) who is always complaining about something, the town drunk Dude (Dean Martin) who spends the movie sobering up, and the new kid in town Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) who is quick on the draw. They are waiting for the marshal to arrive to take Burdette away, but his brother Nathan (John Russell) will not rest until he is freed. Nothing beats brotherly love when you want to keep your sibling from being someone’s best friend, in a manner of speaking, behind bars.

“Rio Bravo” is essentially a big buildup to a final a violent confrontation between the Sheriff and Nathan where bullets fly in all directions. We see these characters going about their normal lives and the Sheriff starting up a subtle romance with the new woman in town, Feathers (Angie Dickinson). Most action movies today would demand filmmakers cut out the character developments and simply go right to the action. It is rare to see a movie like “Rio Bravo” made today as filmmaking gets more faster paced to where we keep losing the art of subtlety.

I see why Wayne was such an incredibly strong presence in movies. He handles the dialogue well, but his best moments come when he doesn’t say a word. There is a moment where he glares at someone he doesn’t recognize as friendly, and he keeps staring at him until the nameless man walks away. Like Chance, Wayne had a face with a lot of history written all over it, and few others could pull off a scene like that so effectively.

You could tell that, like his characters, Wayne had been through a lot in life, and this added immeasurably to the “don’t mess with me” attitude he exhibited onscreen. He was never some pretty boy actor trying to get the ladies, but a seemingly down to earth guy doing his part to serve and protect others.

The other actor who impressed me here was Dean Martin who played Dude, the once famous gunslinger who has spent way too much time drinking to ease a broken heart. Maybe it’s because I have this view of Martin being a member of the Rat Pack to where I thought it completely overshadowed him as an actor. I figured he was more of a star than an actor, but his performance here proved me wrong. Martin takes his character from what seems like an eternally drunk state to a world of sobriety he struggles to keep up with. It’s a battle he can never fully win, but he tries to stay on the right track and Martin makes you root for him throughout.

I can also see why Ricky Nelson was cast here. A big rock star at the time, he was probably cast to help this movie appeal more to women who were crazy about him at the time. Nelson may never have been a truly great actor, but he is very good here as the new kid out to help the Sheriff in times of trouble. Nelson plays it cool here, maybe too cool at times, but you believe he is quick on the trigger.

But the big scene stealer here is Walter Brennan who plays Stumpy. All Stumpy can do is guard the jail with his shotgun and from behind closed doors, and he can be seriously trigger happy if you don’t let him know you’re right outside those jail doors. Every other line he said throughout the movie had the audience I saw it with at New Beverly Cinema in hysterics. The moment where he does that quick impression of Chance had me laughing my ass off.

This is also the first movie I have ever seen directed by Howard Hawks. He shoots with an economy of style and doesn’t overburden “Rio Bravo” with too much style and overlong shots a lot of show-off directors tend to employ. His focus here is on the characters and how they interact with one another. This makes the action more exciting as we come to care about these characters to where we don’t want them to get hurt.

Director John Carpenter pointed out how one of Hawks’ strongest attributes as a filmmaker is his inclusion of strong women. The example of that in Rio Bravo is in the form of Angie Dickinson’s character of Feathers who proves to be the only person in the entire movie who can tame Chance. You never doubt Feathers to be an independent woman who can get by on her own terms. She’s tough, and yet Dickinson manages to bring some vulnerability to Feathers where she doesn’t always appear trustworthy.

The scenes Dickinson has with Wayne are strong, and she succeeds in bringing out his vulnerabilities to the point where he can’t help but appear a little goofy. This is all despite the fact that Wayne was 51 and Dickinson was 26 when they made this movie. It turns out Wayne was very nervous about the love scenes in regards to the age difference. Then again, I don’t think I would have noticed their age difference unless someone pointed it out to me.

“Rio Bravo” is filled with many memorable moments not easily forgotten. The moment where Dude takes out a shooter in a bar is a brilliant one you never see coming. The shootouts are still exciting as hell, especially when good use is made of a flower pot being hurled through a window.

One of my favorite moments comes when the men come in harmony together as they sing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” It reminded me of one of my favorite moments from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” when Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw sang “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” I love those moments in films when people find a way to come together despite whatever differences keep them apart.

I found “Rio Bravo” to be an excellent western, and it’s no surprise to me that it is one of the most influential westerns ever made. It certainly holds a strong place in the cinematic history of westerns, and it endures to this very day. Of course, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom will probably end up remaking it after they have pillaged all the horror franchises they can. That’ll be the day!

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

 

 

Green Zone

Green Zone poster

It was the teaming of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass which made me almost completely forget that “Green Zone” was yet another movie about our war in Iraq. I find myself, as well as many, avoiding this subject at the movies because we spend our days thinking about what goes on over there and of how we want this war to be over with already. But this director and actor were major forces behind some of the most exciting action movies of the past decade with “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Furthermore, the composer of the Bourne trilogy, John Powell, is on board as well to give “Green Zone” an even bigger kinetic kick.

“Green Zone” was apparently inspired by the 2006 non-fiction book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, but the end credits state the movie is actually a work of fiction. Still, while it is not exactly “based on a true story,” “Green Zone” still feels like one of the more logical and honest commentaries about our mess of a war in the Middle East.

Matt Damon stars as Army Chief warrant officer Roy Miller, and we see him with his unit as they investigate a warehouse believed to contain WMD’s. Turns out it doesn’t, and we quickly find this is not the first time Miller and his men have come up empty. As a result, Miller begins to doubt the intelligence reports provided to the troops from a “reliable” but anonymous source. Endlessly curious about why he and every other military officer are not finding any weapons, Miller starts his own investigation into the matter. At the same time, forces around him continue to try and contain a potentially combustible situation that may soon become impossible to control.

It’s no wonder Greengrass chose to work again with Damon on this film. Ever since “The Bourne Identity,” we have had problem accepting Damon as an action hero. What makes Damon perfect for this role is that he never descends into some clichéd portrayal of a soldier who thinks he’s all badass. Roy Miller is a down to earth kind of guy who is sincere in his quest to keep America safe from enemies foreign and domestic. Never does he try to be a hero or show off how macho he is.

You have the soldiers coming up empty, you have the CIA knowing they will come up empty, and you have special intelligence officers who know far more than they are willing to let their own military know about. Also, you have investigative reporters writing articles on Saddam having started up weapons programs again even though they have never been told who their source is. They have to take the word of an official who ends up leading them around in circles.

Now there are a lot of people calling this movie “anti-American” and “anti-war,” but I couldn’t disagree more strongly with that assessment. Many recent war movies are more respectful to the troops than some bother to realize. As for those who assume that it is appallingly “anti-American” as it shows Roy Miller going rogue, I wonder if they had that problem when Jack Bauer does the same thing on “24.”

If anything, the recent war movies have been more anti-mercenary than anything else. Be it “Green Zone,” “The Hurt Locker” or even “Rambo,” mercenaries are shown stepping all over the soldiers if they have to, and we know they get paid twice of what the average soldier makes each year. The soldiers in these films have been presented as far more prepared and patriotic in their commitment to protecting our country. If that isn’t pro-troop, I don’t know what is.

There is also a complexity to both the American and Iraqi characters throughout the film. You figure everyone would be on the same team regardless of what side they are on, but you see all the infighting tearing each side apart as they delude themselves into believing they are winning. One pivotal character in “Green Zone” is Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), an Iraqi who Miller befriends and later becomes his translator. Hollywood has often been accused of presenting Middle Eastern characters as nothing more than terrorists, but Freddy is not like that. Freddy wants to help his country and risks his own life to try to help the Americans while not necessarily welcoming them. He becomes the symbol of those Iraqis that feel wronged by their leaders and of how infuriated they are about the endless damage left in their wake. From a distance, it becomes clear both sides are confused and completely unsure of what to believe.

In some ways “Green Zone” is a criticism of American military involvement in other countries, but director Greengrass doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head with that. Still, during the scene where Miller comes face to face with General Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor, who gives the role a strong menacing quality), he learns the truth of why American military forces are really in Iraq. Al-Rawi is one of the bad guys, but he is also a victim of being in the position he is in. In other words, Al-Rawi is going to take a fall because the United States government wants Saddam.

When Al-Rawi asks Roy Miller if he thinks American forces can seriously change anything in Iraq, I was reminded of a scene in Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” where a helicopter pilot is being held by Somalia warlords who question the military’s involvement in their country:

“Do you think if you get General Aidid, we will simply put down our weapons and adopt American democracy? That the killing will stop? We know this. Without victory, there will be no peace. There will always be killing, see? This is how things are in our world.”

Throughout his career, Greengrass has never been afraid of dealing with topics which are very touchy. With “Bloody Sunday,” he captured the horrible events of January 20, 1972 when British soldiers clashed with Northern Ireland protestors fighting for their freedom. Then there was “United 93” which dealt with the events of September 11th and of how the passengers on that fateful flight were the first to deal with a post-9/11 world. With “Green Zone,” he defies those who think movies should just be an escape and not a forum for national conversation. It’s an action movie designed to be as thrilling as it is enlightening. His aim is not to show how America divided itself from the rest of the world with this invasion, but of how it created sharp and highly sensitive divisions in America itself.

In addition to Damon, there are other actors who bring their considerable acting talents to “Green Zone.” Brendan Gleeson is perfectly cast as Martin Brown, the CIA Baghdad bureau chief who has seen it all. Still, he is trying to cut through the BS hindering his efforts to control the situation in Iraq. Amy Ryan is excellent as Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent Lawrie Dayne. Her character has written many articles regarding weapons programs being continued in Saddam’s regime, but we see her doubt the source given to her. Most reporters in movies these days are despicable, but Ryan makes this one empathetic as she comes to discover the truth which contradicts all she has reported. The always reliable Greg Kinnear is also well cast as Clark Poundstone, a member of Pentagon Special Intelligence who knows far more than he lets on. It’s no secret these characters are based on real people, but the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

“Green Zone” isn’t as viscerally exciting as the Jason Bourne movies, and it won’t go down as the definitive Iraq war movie (“The Hurt Locker” holds that distinctive honor), but it is still edge of your seat entertainment. But not to worry, Greengrass films the action in a way that doesn’t make it all that hard to tell what’s going on.

Another key scene that comes to mind is when Roy Miller goes out to investigate a lead, and Kinnear’s character ends up cutting him off. As he walks inside the CIA headquarters in Baghdad he tells Miller, “You shouldn’t have been playing on the wrong team.”

It makes me wonder, when was the last time all of us Americans were on the same team?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2010.

The Bourne Legacy

The Bourne Legacy poster

Some consider “The Bourne Legacy” to be a cinematic cheat, nothing more than a greedy attempt by Universal Pictures to continue a hugely successful franchise without its main stars (Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass). Truth be told however, Universal has done a good job making it clear to audiences that this movie is not out to replace the character of Jason Bourne or have an actor other than Damon playing him. Even though it doesn’t break any new ground in the franchise and threatens to pale in comparison to the trilogy of films which preceded it, “The Bourne Legacy” proves to be an exciting action flick that finds its own rhythm and goes with it.

Describing this movie is a little complicated as it cannot easily be called a sequel or a prequel. This one is really more of a parallel story or a “parallel-quel” if you will. Like “Paranormal Activity 2,” it surrounds the events of the movie which came before it, “The Bourne Ultimatum.” With Jason Bourne systematically taking apart Operation Blackbriar, “Legacy” looks to pull back the curtain to reveal there were several other secret government programs which trained American soldiers to do their dirty work. The program focused on here is Operation Outcome which has employed Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an agent who’s not suffering from amnesia but one who knows he is as easily expendable as Bourne.

In differentiating Aaron Cross as a character, Outcome agents are shown to be more like mice in a science lab as they are given certain kinds of medication which give them increased mental and physical abilities. There are no red or blue pills like in “The Matrix,” but instead green and blue ones which Aaron needs to function. If he misses a dose or doesn’t have access to a refill, he will go into serious withdrawal and could die. Anyone who has had experience with certain medications can certainly understand how bad the withdrawal part can get.

When the situation with Bourne gets as explosive as it did in the last film, retired Air Force Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is brought in to contain the situation and decides the Outcome agents need to be eliminated for the government’s own protection. So despite the agents’ allegiance to their countries, they are stabbed in the back and assassinated in the coldest way possible.

Aaron narrowly escapes an assassination attempt and ends up going on the run to escape detection and to find some more of those pills. This has him traversing through the Alaskan wilderness while being chased by wolves and going all the way to the Philippines. Joining him in his exploits is Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), one of the doctors who helped Aaron achieve such amazing abilities. The setup does have a ring familiarity about it as Marta, like Marie in “The Bourne Identity,” sees her life get turned upside down and is forced to go on the run with Cross. But whereas Marie was an individual who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, Marta does have a stronger purpose as Aaron needs her to stay alive.

 

I could spend a lot of time comparing “The Bourne Legacy” with the three previous films, but I would rather not. Those three movies set a new standard for action movies which is extremely hard to top, and that makes certain comparisons somewhat unfair. Greengrass at one time joked that doing another Jason Bourne movie might as well have him calling it “The Bourne Redundancy,” and that could have been the case here. Indeed, the setup is the same with two characters on the run from a government that has betrayed them, but Tony Gilroy does ground this story in a reality that wasn’t as present in the previous movies.

Gilroy has already made himself well known as one of the main architects of the Jason Bourne movies with his involvement in writing the screenplays for them, but his talents as a director were established before “The Bourne Legacy” with “Michael Clayton” which was one of 2007’s best movies. He does solid work in making this particular Bourne movie stand out from the others, and he doesn’t have the camera shaking all over the place.

Renner creates an intriguing enough character in Aaron Cross that makes us want to follow him some more in the future. Renner has long since acquitted himself as an actor in movies like “The Hurt Locker,” “The Town” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” and with “The Bourne Legacy” he gets a lead role in a motion picture worthy of his talents.

And while her character yells more than she should, Weisz is Renner’s equal in one scene to the next as she is thrown into a situation which changes her life permanently. Weisz is a powerful actress to say the least, and she keeps us hanging on during the movie’s more intense sequences.

Edward Norton creates a down to earth nemesis with his character of Eric Byer. While Norton is not always known as one of the easiest actors to deal work with, we know he will always give a multi-dimensional portrait of each character he plays. Eric is not a man driven to do evil, but one whose patriotism forces him to do extreme things in order to protect his country.

You also have to acknowledge actors like Oscar Isaac, Donna Murphy, Zeljko Ivanek and Stacy Keach who take their small roles and made them into compelling characters. Other actors who show to reprise their roles, however briefly are David Strathairn, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn, and Joan Allen who once again proves with a single line that Deputy Director Pamela Landy is not a person to be messed with.

I missed John Powell’s brilliant music from the past three movies, and the scoring duties this time are left to Gilroy’s frequent composer James Newton Howard. Powell created adrenaline pumping music for the previous three movies that fused orchestral and electronic elements together to thrilling effect. Having said that, Howard is an excellent composer in his own right, and he does give the movie the kinetic score it deserves.

With “The Bourne Legacy,” Tony Gilroy gives us a new chapter in this franchise which in some ways is more realistic than the ones which came before. This may take fans for a bit of a loop depending on what they expect, but it still manages to deliver the goods all the same. Still, it would have been nice for Aaron Cross to have his own theme song instead of Jason Bourne’s (“Extreme Ways” by Moby). How about “Renegade” by Styx? That would work.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2012.

The Duel

The Duel poster

The Duel” is one of those movies that wants to generate tension you can feel simmering below the surface, but it doesn’t come to life until it is much too late. It’s a shame because it features a pair of mesmerizing performances that are offset by a weak one, and its last half really does keep you on the edge of your seat. Everything leading up to that, however, is undone by a dullness that infects the whole proceedings.

The movie starts off in the year 1866 as young David Kingston watches his father get killed in a knife duel by Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson), and then it moves to 20 years later with David (now played by Liam Hemsworth) a man and serving as a Texas Ranger. David gets assigned to investigate a series of murders and disappearances that have taken place in an Old West frontier town named Helena, and he reluctantly brings along his wife Marisol (Alice Braga) who doesn’t want to wait for him to return home. It is there that he becomes reacquainted with Abraham who is the town’s preacher and manages to keep the people there in a fearful grip. You should have a pretty good idea of where the story will go from this description.

The setup of the story is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” which had Leonardo DiCaprio avenging his father’s death at the hands of Daniel Day Lewis, and “The Duel” looks to travel that same path. The problem is that director Kieran Darcy-Smith and screenwriter Matt Cook are not entirely sure how to reach the expected climax with David and Abraham fighting to the death. There are also many questions the movie raises and never answers in a satisfying way, and it really should not have taken long for Abraham to realize who David really is. As a result, the movie never comes to life until we get past the halfway point.

The best thing about “The Duel” is Woody Harrelson who, at this point in his career, can play just about any character he wants to whether it’s in a comedy or a drama. Right from the start, he is a menacing presence as he stares down into everybody’s soul and manages to put the town under a hypnotic spell. Harrelson has played his share of bad dudes before in movies like “Natural Born Killers,” “Out of the Furnace” and “Rampart,” and Abraham Brant is another he can add to his ever-growing resume. Harrelson may have made his Hollywood breakthrough playing a dim-witted bartender on “Cheers,” but watching him in “The Duel” makes that seem like such a distant memory.

Another strong performance comes from Alice Braga as Marisol, David’s wife who falls under Abraham’s spell to where you really want to kick David for leaving her alone so much. Braga is riveting as she takes Marisol from a strong-willed woman to one who is under the grip of something she is desperate to get control over. This is not some stock female character that can be found in your typical western movie, and Braga makes that very clear throughout.

But then there’s Liam Hemsworth who is simply miscast as David Kingston. It’s not that he isn’t believable as a Texas Ranger, but that he shows no real acting range in the role. In many ways he gives an emotionless performance, and it would have been better if another actor equal to Harrelson were cast in his place. Hemsworth just doesn’t bring much to the part, and the movie suffers considerably as a result.

For what it’s worth, Darcy-Smith does a very good job of transporting the audience back to the 1880’s as everything we see feels authentic to the era. He also jacks up the tension considerably in the last half as David and Abraham try to outsmart one another in the barren fields outside of town, and there’s a taut scene where the two face off in the town’s bar. It’s a very effective moment as the anticipation of guns going off becomes unbearably strong, and we can’t be sure of who is going to walk out of there alive.

Indeed, there are many things to like about “The Duel” from its production values to its performances, so it is frustrating to say that it really disappoints. The filmmakers may have wanted to emulate the great and gritty westerns of the past like “The Wild Bunch” or any starring John Wayne, but it can’t hold a candle to them. They are many who say that the western is dead, but no genre ever really dies. But after watching “The Duel,” it does feel like it needs a lot of reenergizing.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * out of * * * *

Marauders

MARAUDERS final poster

Watching “Marauders,” I kept wondering how this movie even went into production as the screenplay needs a lot more work. It does have some strong action scenes and the cast for the most part does good work, but the plot becomes so amazingly convoluted that it didn’t take long for me to give up following what was going on. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to keep you guessing as to who was up to what, but you have to give a damn about the characters for that to work. What we have instead are cardboard cutouts from every other cop drama ever made, and they occupy a movie too brutal and nihilistic to be the least bit enjoyable.

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Robbing the bank

The movie starts off with a bank robbery where the thieves wear these scary looking masks and use a Siri-like device to give orders to the customers and employees. It’s actually a very clever setup as it looks like these thieves have done their homework and have succeeded in covering their tracks. At the same time, “Marauders” announces loudly, thanks in part to a booming industrial film score by Ryan Dodson, that it is going to be a brutal ride. It’s brutal alright, but brutal doesn’t automatically equate to entertainment.

From there we meet a group of FBI agents played by Chris Meloni, Dave Butista and Adrian Grenier who study the crime scene the way cops and FBI agents do in movies and the evidence points to the bank’s owner, Jeffrey Hubert (Bruce Willis), and his high powered clients as the culprits. Jeffrey treats things and people the way he runs his bank, in an exceedingly cold fashion. Oh yeah, Meloni’s character is a widower who still plays around with his wedding ring and listens to voice messages his wife left him. Grenier plays a newbie to the FBI team, so of course he’s going to be seen as the rookie who has yet to learn how things really work in law enforcement. As for Butista, he plays a seen-it-all kind of guy whose work has long since wiped the smile off his face. You know, it’s the usual cast of characters.

Perhaps I am asking too much of “Marauders” or came into it expecting a fresh take on the heist movie. A movie like this isn’t required to reinvent the genre, but it would have helped if the plot made the least bit of sense or gave us characters who you give a damn about. The term marauder refers to a person involved in banditry, piracy, looting, robbery or theft, and after a while it seems like everyone here is one whether they wear a mask or not. Alliances keep shifting to where the screenplay has plot holes as big as the sinkhole which recently opened up on Contra Costa Boulevard in Northern California.

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Then there’s Bruce Willis whose career continues to take a nosedive as he has been reduced to appearing in VOD releases like this, “Precious Cargo,” “Vice” and “Extraction.” Looking at his face, he seems so disinterested to even be in “Marauders” to where I can’t help but think he did this film just for the money. Heck, he’s barely even in it and is only top billed because he is still considered a big time movie star. Is there anything notable to say about Willis’ appearance here? Well, he does have some hair on his head for a change…

For what it’s worth, Meloni does turn in a strong performance as the widowed FBI agent Jonathan Montgomery. It’s a role not unlike the one he played for years on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and he gives Jonathan a gruff don’t-mess-with-me demeanor that few are foolish to question or challenge. It’s also cool to see Bautista here as he proves that there is more to him than just being another action hero or a Bond villain. As for Grenier, he’s also good even though his character is essentially a Johnny “Point Break” Utah wannabe who you know is going to mess up on the job at least once.

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Adrian Grenier

But good performances are not nearly enough to save this mess of a movie which goes in all sorts of directions without ever reaching a satisfying conclusion, and the tone is so vile that there’s not much enjoyment to be had. Director Steven C. Miller may have wanted to pay homage to all the great heist movies like Michael Mann’s “Heat,” but it never comes close to reaching greatness. Instead, it leaves a vile aftertaste and you come out of feeling very unclean. A good long shower is mandatory if you bother to sit through this whole thing.

Seriously, “Marauders” is the equivalent of all those straight to video movies that used to pop up at the video store all the time, but it’s not even enjoyable on a “so good it’s bad” level. One has to wonder if Lionsgate had any interest in making a good heist movie when the script for this came along. Perhaps they figured that with stars like Willis and Meloni, the movie would turn a profit even if people hate it. Then again, movies like this one do have “don’t bother” written all over them, so hopefully its target audience will watch “Captain America: Civil War” for the seventh time instead.

* ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.