‘Avengers: Endgame’ Had Me Going Out of the Movie Theater Saying Wow

Avengers Endgame poster

WRITER’S NOTE: Will or will not this review have spoilers? Does it matter pointing it out at this point? Like any other movie, it would be best to keep from reading this review until you have seen this one.

Now you all know how much I hate the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me, but there is also another I get seriously annoyed with, and it is this one: “it has all led up to this.” When a movie trilogy reaches its end or a television show finally arrives at its season or series finale, this phrase is often utilized as a way to get butts in the seats or eyes glued to the television in a why which will have advertisers salivating to no end. More often than not, it feels like a shameless trick to get us to watch something we otherwise wouldn’t, and we come out of it feeling angry as we have been easily duped.

But when it comes to “Avengers: Endgame,” the term “it has all led up to this” makes perfect sense. This is the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which started back in 2008 with “Iron Man,” but this one has a strong sense of finality as the superheroes we have followed all these years will rise and fall all at the same time. Yes, the MCU will continue on, and we have “Spider-Man” and “Black Panther” sequels to look forward to, but after this penultimate installment, things will never be the same. What results is an exhilarating motion picture which thrills even the most jaded of moviegoers, and its conclusion will leave you emotionally drained for very good reason. Yes, it really has all led up to this.

Three weeks have passed since Thanos (Josh Brolin) captured all the Infinity Stones, snapped his finger and eliminated half of all life across the universe. Those Avengers who survived the snap are, as you can expect, infinitely eager to avenge those lives who disintegrated, but their quest for justice does not go in the way you might expect. In fact, for some it comes too quickly and leaves a lot of damage in its wake.

Following this, the movie then jumps ahead five years as what is left of humanity is grappling with the things they can do in the aftermath. Some are still eager to undo what Thanos did while others have done what they can to move on. Either way, they are dealing with a clear case of survivor’s guilt, and their enthusiasm for saving the universe is not what it used to be.

Yes, these characters are blessed with super powers we would love to have o, but the filmmakers are quick to show us how they are as human as we are. They suffer from doubts, anxiety, frustration and, as this movie begins, they are overcome with despair. While they may be special or gifted, they aren’t much different from the average joe as the weight of the world lies heavily on them, and they don’t have time to balance their checkbook. (Who does anyway?)

Time travel plays a significant role in this MCU movie as a couple of the Avengers, namely Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), come up with a theory which will make it possible for them to accomplish, albeit with some limitations. Like everyone else, the Avengers have seen every time travel movie ever made and are quick to mention such classics as the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Time After Time,” “Timecop” (was this particular Jean Claude Van Damme film ever that popular?), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” and even “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Somehow, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” was left off this list, and I am deeply perturbed as a result. The Enterprise crew saved humpback whales in that one for crying out loud!

I enjoyed how “Avengers: Endgame” plays on our knowledge of time travel as a plot device. Even though science renders these various time travel methods to be utterly bogus, the pluses and minuses of actually changing historical events are always prominent in our minds. Remember all that talk about the space time continuum? Whether or not the conclusion of this movie is in doubt, I spent much of it wondering how things would end up once the mission was complete. What gave me comfort was what Doc Brown said in “Back to the Future Part III” about how the future isn’t written and how it is whatever you make it.

Granted, the time travel aspect does get a bit confusing at times, especially when certain characters end up facing off against their past and present selves. It reminded me of when Austin Powers faced a similar predicament in “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” and that one was a comedy. But the movie proves to be so much fun, who cares?

Helming “Avengers: Endgame” are Anthony and Joe Russo, brothers who have been a major asset to the MCU ever since they directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they have an infinitely impossible job of balancing out a story filled with far too many superheroes, most of which will not get the same amount of screen time as the biggest ones of all. The ending is bombastic, but never in an overwhelming way. And yes, it is three hours long, but it never drags nor is it in need of a top-notch editor the way “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” was. For what it’s worth, you can head straight to the bathroom once the end credits start as there are no special scenes during or after them.

I imagine a lot of people look at these “Avenger” movies as being the kind which don’t require the cast to give their best performances ever. This assertion, however, is deeply unfair as many of the actors here have inhabited these characters for close to a decade. From one movie to the next, we see these characters evolve in meaningful ways to where we have to recognize what the passing years have done to them. It does not matter how incredible they are because they age like us even if they don’t always show it.

Chief among the cast is Robert Downey Jr. whose role as Tony Stark/Iron Man helped to rejuvenate a film career which looked to be permanently undone by drug abuse. Downey has taken Tony from being a lovably arrogant playboy millionaire to a less self-centered man who becomes eager to reign in his fellow superheroes before they do damage they won’t be able to walk away from. Tony himself has some interesting developments along with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to where his hesitation to disrupt the course of events is challenged endlessly, and watching him here makes you realize how far he has come in this role.

Another actor is Chris Hemsworth who has had quite the journey as Thor. For his first two movies, he portrayed the powerful Asgardian as an unshakably pure force who could not ever be corrupted. Then came “Thor: Ragnarok,” the best “Thor” film yet, which allowed Hemsworth to take some risks with the character in ways which made him even more interesting. With “Endgame,” we get to see Thor in his Big Lebowski phase, and we can tell Hemsworth is just having a blast taking this superhero in this direction. We should applaud him for taking chances here as other actors would have been a bit too fearful to do so.

Then there is Chris Evans who took Steve Rogers and his alter-ego of Captain America from what we thought would be the average white guy and turned him into a charismatic good guy in a way we did not see coming. Evans really hits his peak here in the MCU as he finishes his run in a very moving way, with Steve Rogers getting to reclaim a part of his past he thought he lost many years before. It is not spoiling anything to say this is Evans’ last time playing this superhero, but seeing him take his curtain call here is wonderfully fulfilling.

Coming out of “Avengers: Endgame,” all I could say was, wow. It’s the perfect capper to an amazing franchise, and my hat is off to everyone at Marvel for crossing the finish line in such an unforgettable way. DC Comics and Warner Brothers can only hope to be this successful with their own cinematic universe. Not once was I worried this franchise would flame out the way “The Matrix” did with “The Matrix Revolutions.” Everyone involved hit it right out of the park with this installment, and you don’t even need record breaking box office to prove it.

Of course, the question now is, where will the MCU go from here? I cannot see Marvel topping what they did here, especially with the cast taking their bow in the way the original Enterprise crew did at the end of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” by providing their signatures. I imagine there are many more Marvel movies in our future, but the journey from here will still be fraught with expectations which may or may not be met. If this was to be the last MCU ever, it would have been perfect. All the same, superhero/comic book movies still reign supreme at the box office, so hopefully the ones coming soon to a theater near you will still be wonderfully entertaining. Whether or not they are as glorious as this one is another story.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ Leaves You Hanging From Dizzying Heights

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol poster

Writer’s note: This review was written back in 2011.

The “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps getting better and better which each successive sequel, something few other franchises can ever lay claim to. The first one directed by Brian De Palma had a confusing storyline but spectacular action set pieces. The second one had a plot which was easier to follow and the signature ballet action sequences we’ve come to love and expect from John Woo. Part three gave us the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, had a stronger plot, a very effective villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman and ended up remembering what made the original television series work so well. Each movie in this series has its own unique identity which allowed this franchise to have a longevity we didn’t expect it to have. Of course, with Tom Cruise’s antics upstaging “Mission: Impossible III,” it started to seem his time as Ethan Hunt had run its course.

But Cruise is back for more, and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” turns out to be the best of one yet as it features some of the most ingenious action scenes I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time. It also has the added benefit of having been filmed in part with IMAX cameras which gives certain scenes a highly realistic look and feel to where you are right in the center of the action. Just when I thought this franchise had ran out of steam, Cruise and director Brad Bird (making his live action debut) thrill us in a highly unexpected way.

It appears Hunt’s retirement from the IMF after “Mission: Impossible III” didn’t last long, and we find him at this movie’s beginning in a Moscow prison throwing a rock at the wall like he’s Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” But he is soon sprung from his cell with the help of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and we find out he was imprisoned for a mission gone wrong, and he has since become estranged from his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) for mysterious reasons. Just like Jack Bauer in “24,” Hunt can’t stay away from what he does best when danger rears its ugly head.

After their great escape, Hunt and Dunn infiltrate the Kremlin in an effort to locate files of a nemesis with the code name of Cobalt. This mission, however, goes horribly wrong when the Kremlin is blown to smithereens, and the entire IMF is disavowed as a result. Hunt and his team are forced to take blame for the attack, but they are allowed to escape in order to locate Cobalt and stop a nuclear war. This time, Hunt and company have no support to rely on as they forced to work on their own.

As with the previous entry, Cruise lets the other actors shine as he has realized Hunt doesn’t need to do everything himself. Seeing Benji get upgraded from techno nerd to field agent is great fun, and Pegg is a real treat to watch here as he becomes much more than just comic relief. Paula Patton embodies her agent character of Jane Carter convincingly and gets to kick some serious ass in various scenes, one of which has her taking on a female assassin in something more than just your average catfight.

The best addition, however, to this “Mission: Impossible” movie is Jeremy Renner who plays William Brandt, a chief analyst for the IMF. Renner, whose career has been on a major upswing thanks to his performances in “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town,” is a great addition to this franchise, and he even gets a big action set piece as William proves to know far more than he lets on. His secrets threaten to be devastating if revealed, and Renner does excellent work in showing the turmoil Brandt endures as he is faced with a whole other kind of impossible mission.

The main antagonist this time out is Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) who is bent on starting a nuclear war so he can bring about the next evolution of the human race. Nyqvist brings a strong villainy to this role which makes you sneer at his presence whenever he’s onscreen. However, he’s upstaged by Léa Seydoux who portrays French assassin Sabine Moreau. Her cold glare penetrates your inner defenses with little difficulty, and you have to put on your best poker face in her presence to stay alive (and that may not even be enough).

But the real star of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is director Brad Bird himself. You’d think stepping outside the world of animation where he made “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant” would leave him at a spectacular disadvantage as what you can get away with in that realm of filmmaking does not necessarily translate as well to live action. But it’s clear Bird allows nothing to stand in his way in terms of what can be accomplished, and he comes up with one amazing action sequence after another.

The one sequence which needs to be acknowledged above others is when Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world. The IMAX cameras give this moment a reality like no other, and that feeling of intense vertigo is hard to ignore. Seriously, I felt like I was outside of that building with Cruise as he climbed up it with nothing but suction gloves. If there is a more intense action sequence with a character hanging on for dear life from one of the world’s tallest buildings, it certainly didn’t come to mind while I watched this movie. I had trouble getting to sleep afterwards because that crazy stunt was still on my mind and would not let me be.

There’s about a half hour or so of footage shot in IMAX, and Bird makes use of this format to great effect. Aside from Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building, there’s a scene of the Kremlin exploding which literally takes your breath away. While many still complain of IMAX feeling like a rip off with its high ticket prices, it’s worth the extra money in a way 3D could only dream of being at this point.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a big surprise as this franchise looked like it had already hit its peak to where another sequel seemed needless. But Cruise and company successfully revive it by giving us characters to care about and root for, and they outdo themselves with stunts even more amazing than what we saw previously. Regardless of what you may think of Cruise as a person these days (many of my friends can’t stand him), he still puts on a good show even as he grows visibly older. Just when you thought he was out, he pulls himself back in!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Avengers’ Was Well Worth The Wait

The Avengers movie poster

So now we finally have “The Avengers,” a movie which has been hinted at over the past few years in “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has made cameo appearances here and there to remind these superheroes there is this way they can all come and work together, and for a bit it seemed too good to be true. But low and behold, Joss Whedon has given us a summer blockbuster which was worth the wait and focuses on character as much as it does on spectacle.

“The Avengers” starts off with S.H.I.E.L.D. experimenting on a powerful energy source known as the Tesseract when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother and nemesis, appears out of nowhere and steals it. His plan is to use it to subjugate Earth and its inhabitants because he feels they wanted to be lorded over more than they realize. From there it’s up to these various superheroes to join forces and defeat Loki and his army before it’s too late.

This movie does take its sweet time getting started, and it almost seems unnecessary considering how well acquainted we have become with all these superheroes through their individual movies. Still, meeting up with them again feels good as we are curious to see what they have been up to since their last set of adventures. Captain America/Steve Rogers is still trying to acclimate to present day life after being frozen for decades, Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk spends his time in a foreign country helping its people while trying to control his anger, and Tony Stark/Iron Man is busy completing a new skyscraper along with the love of his life, Pepper Potts. Others make their entrance at unexpected times and play more of a role here than they did in previous movies.

What makes “The Avengers” work so well is that Whedon never lets the iconography of these characters speak for them more than the actors do. While these few have amazing superpowers we all dream of having, they are seen as freaks who are not part of society as a whole. Being so alienated from the common man and woman, their relationship with themselves and those around them is dysfunctional to say the least.

Seeing these characters interact with one another gives this film its best moments. While they may have a lot in common, their ideas of protecting humanity differ quite significantly. Captain America is as old fashioned as they come, and his methods and beliefs have the more cynical people snickering behind his back. As for Thor, he’s from another planet which has all those around him wondering what the hell he’s talking about.

And then Tony Stark comes into this ruckus like John Bender in “The Breakfast Club,” gleefully and playfully chiding all those around him (he calls Thor “Point Break”). Robert Downey Jr. inhabits this character like few others could, and he makes Stark a likable character even while he’s being an arrogant bastard much of the time. In many ways, Downey is the most prominent presence among these Avengers even while others in the team are nowhere as selfish as Stark.

The actors in “The Avengers” confirm what we already knew in the past, that they were exceptionally well cast. Each one brings a depth of humanity to their characters in a way that keeps them from becoming mere caricatures of what we grew up reading about. Special kudos goes out to Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth who make their roles as Captain America and Thor count for all they are worth. What could have been made inadvertently laughable has been rendered largely charismatic by these two thespians, and we cheer them on as they fight the good fight against Loki and his army.

It’s also nice to see Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner get more screen time here as Black Widow and Hawkeye than they did in previous films. Renner had one of those blink and you missed it cameos in “Thor” while Johansson’s role in “Iron Man 2” was in a movie which had more characters than it had any right to deal with. In “The Avengers,” the two of them are given more room to grow, and each invests their character with real emotions which makes us root for them throughout.

But the one actor who stands out above everyone else in “The Avengers” (literally and figuratively speaking) is Mark Ruffalo who is the latest actor to portray Dr. Bruce Banner, better known by his alter ego of the Hulk. Marvel has had the hardest time translating this particular comic book character to the big screen despite memorable performances from Eric Bana and Edward Norton. But like those two actors, Ruffalo finds his own interpretation of this famous character, and he succeeds in making this role his own. Unlike the moody Bruce Banners of the past, Ruffalo gives us one who yearns to fit in with everyone else regardless of the angry state he gets in from time to time. In the process, Ruffalo gives us a Hulk worth cheering for as he dominates each action scene he’s in thanks in part to vocal help from the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. As a result, I see a future for the actor as this character in a way I couldn’t before. Seeing him slam Loki all over the place as if he were a wet rag had the audience clapping loudly.

Are there plot holes and inconsistencies to be found in “The Avengers?” Probably, but with a movie like this you don’t really find yourself thinking too much about that. What sucks for Thor is he never gets to meet up with his earthbound love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is sent off to some remote place where she’ll be safe. When “Thor” ended, the portal between his world and Earth was forever destroyed it seem. It’s never made clear how it somehow got fixed to where Thor could travel back, but anyway. You’d figure he would at least spend some time with Dr. Foster, but some superheroes can only be so lucky I guess. At least you can give Thor some credit for looking her up. Dr. Banner never looks up his old girlfriend who was been played in past movies by Jennifer Connelly and Liv Tyler. What gives Hulk? You smash things but did you also smash what’s left of your emotional connections? Oh well…

The big problem with big budget blockbusters like “The Avengers” is they can easily get overwhelmed by the special effects to where the human element is completely lost. But none of this is ever lost on Whedon who has given us such great entertainment over the years with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and “Cabin in The Woods” which he co-wrote. Here he gives a satisfying blockbuster which works on us emotionally as much as it thrills us. This could have easily been a major disappointment, and the fact it is not makes the film a huge success.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012 not long after “The Avengers” was released.

’28 Weeks Later’ is a Shockingly Effective Sequel

28 Weeks Later movie poster

When I heard that they were making a sequel to Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” I couldn’t help but wonder why. How could you make a sequel to a movie like that without it being the same old thing? 20th Century Fox put together a company called Fox Atomic which specializes in horror movies and sequels to horror movies because god forbid the money stops there! They made “The Hills Have Eyes 2.” I thought “The Hills Have Eyes” remake was great, but I was not as excited about seeing the sequel because it had a different director who made some bad horror films.

Now they have released “28 Weeks Later.” That’s great, milk it as much as you want. No mercy or respect for the franchise. Then again, these were my thoughts before I actually watched the movie. It had the good luck of at least having Danny Boyle and Alex Garland on as executive producers, so I was assured this follow-up wouldn’t be of poor quality. Under the tense direction of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who previously directed “Intacto,” “28 Weeks Later” adds itself to the list of sequels which equal the original in terms of vision and sheer terror, and it ends up delivering what it promises; an extremely intense and unsettling movie going experience.

All the main characters from “28 Days Later” are absent here, so we have a whole new cast of characters trying to stay alive while stranded in a part of the world engulfed by the rage virus. It starts off with a group of English people who have managed to find refuge in a home where they hide from the infected. The main characters are a married couple played by Robert Carlyle and Catherine McCormick who are seen preparing dinner when the movie begins. Most of the actors here are not too familiar to audiences, and this helps the movie in its approach. Carlyle will definitely be familiar to those who remember him from “Trainspotting” and “The Full Monty,” and each of those movies show off how much of a range he has as an actor.

The opening of “28 Weeks Later” has a supreme amount of tension that never lets up. I got to see it at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and I sat in the back with my hands over my ears because I was eagerly anticipating all hell breaking loose as soon as the movie started. I typically watch most horror movies like this because it’s not what I see that gets to me, it’s the sound. Look no further than the original “Halloween” for an example of this.

The opening is brilliantly shot because you feel like you are right there with these people inside the house. You don’t see the outside world until they do, and it ain’t pleasant. When the infected make their inevitable entrance, Carlyle’s character ends up abandoning his wife who screams at him from a window in disbelief. He runs away from the infected at warp speed, and the fact he escapes with his life is both astonishing and shameful.

The story then moves to London after the outbreak with things finally returning to normal. The United States Army has taken over, and the first of the survivors are now coming back into the safe zone to start their lives over in a land now free of infection. We get to meet the children of Carlyle’s and McCormick’s characters who are played by Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton. Carlyle’s character is, of course, unprepared to tell his children how their mother perished among the infected, and he lies to them about what happened. As much as you despise him, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. Don’t you hate that?

Anyway, his lie about their mother being killed gets exposed when she is found alive in a closed off area of England. She has been bitten by the infected, but somehow has not been overtaken by the rage virus. Her blood seems to have some sort of immunity from the virus which keeps her from going completely psychotic. It is incredibly tragic that husband doesn’t have the good sense to keep himself from kissing her. A kiss is just a kiss? Not in this movie!

As you can expect, all hell breaks loose, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. The military tries to control the situation and they end up resorting to, when nothing else works, code red as they quickly see there’s no stopping the spread of infection. They can’t tell the difference between who is human and who is infected, so they resort to killing everyone to keep the situation contained. What makes this scenario so terrifying is how realistic is presented here, and the depressing solution the military takes to contain this horrifying situation is painfully understandable as it threatens the rest of the world. So, those young kids now have to find their way out of the “safe zone” and run away from those who have no choice but to bite and infect them.

There is a lot of shaky handheld camera work in “28 Weeks Later” which gives the movie an immediacy which sucks you in just like the original did. I have been back and forth in regards to hand held camerawork because it can veer easily from being exciting to the becoming relentlessly annoying. Don’t even get me started on the later movies of Woody Allen. I can’t even begin to tell you how nauseous I got while watching “Deconstructing Harry” on the big screen.

But here, the shaky camerawork is perfect as it brings us right into the chaos these characters are feverishly trying to escape. The camera goes all over the place to where we can’t tell where the exit is or if we can trust the person next to us. Fresnadillo is excellent in drawing you into the mindset of the chaos and confusion of what the characters are forced to experience. What if you can’t find your way out? What if the person next to you is infected? Where is the safest place to go? Everyone is running for dear life, but in which direction does one head?

What also makes “28 Weeks Later” work is it’s not just based on thrills and chills as there is an intelligence at work here. There’s a subtle critique of the seemingly endless occupation of military forces in other countries as they futilely try to control a situation completely beyond anyone’s control.

Aside from those kid actors who are terrific and very down to earth, there are a few others worth mentioning. Jeremy Renner plays Doyle, a military shooter who quickly develops a conscience when he decides not to follow orders and instead save a little boy who doesn’t deserve to die. I also want to mention Rose Byrne who plays Army doctor, Scarlet. I like it when a movie where there is a very strong female character who thinks she has found the key to eradicating infection. Of course, no one listens to her because the quick fix-it answer is to kill the host and everyone else if it comes into contact with. Byrne is very believable as a soldier who has no choice but to hold it together when the world around her quickly crumbles.

“28 Weeks Later” is an incredibly tense ride from start to finish, and it never lets up. There’s an unnerving sequence where the main characters have to flee from a chemical attack by going into the underground subway which is pitch black, and the only way they can make their way through is with night vision. This proves to be one of the scariest scenes I have seen in a motion picture in the longest time.

Whereas “28 Days Later” found a measure of hope at its conclusion, “28 Weeks Later” is unrelentingly bleak. Any hope is vanquished by the end, and its last shot features a famous landmark which shows how inevitable it is infection will spread from country to country. This sequel proves to be very respectful of its predecessor, and it goes even further into the nightmare the world is caught up in and beyond everybody’s control. It makes me eager to see “28 Months Later” which I hope will at some point in the future become a reality. But personally, I am waiting for “28 Millennium Later.” The way things are going right now, humanity is doomed in one way or another.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Hurt Locker’ Raises the Bar on Seriously Intense War Movies

The Hurt Locker movie poster

Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” is one of the most intense war movies I have ever seen. It follows an elite Army EOD bomb squad in Iraq assigned with the task of disarming IED’s, or explosive devices designed to create the most damage possible. Chris Hedges was once quoted as saying war is a drug, and this perfectly the movie we are about to witness. Every time these soldiers go out into the field, it’s either life or death, and no one has any idea how it will turn out. We get to view things from the soldier’s perspective, and the result is a film of wished it was.

The movie stars Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James, a highly experienced bomb technician who takes over a bomb disposal team after its previous leader is killed in combat. Aside from William, the team is also made up of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who are immediately taken aback by William’s seemingly reckless tactics. From the moment he steps onscreen, it is clear William finds much more excitement in this most dangerous of jobs than any human being should ever be allowed to experience. It ends up being more important for him than anything else in his life, including raising a child his girlfriend just gave birth to.

When this movie was released, it was already past the point where Bigelow should have gotten her due as one of the best action directors working in movies today, and “The Hurt Locker” may very well be her masterpiece. As I walked out of the movie theater, my nerves still jangling from this intense experience, I was just waiting for someone, anyone to say they never realized a woman could direct an action movie so effectively. It’s like I was almost daring someone to say this. For those of you who are surprised at seeing a female director pull this off, I got a few things to tell you about: “Near Dark,” a vampire-western hybrid, “Blue Steel” with Jaime Lee Curtis, “Point Break” with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, “Strange Days” with Ralph Fiennes and Angela Basset and directing from a script by ex-husband James Cameron, and the vastly underrated “K-19: The Widowmaker” with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Bigelow directed all of these movies. She didn’t start yesterday folks!

By using four or more hand-held 16 mm cameras, Bigelow gives “The Hurt Locker” a documentary feel which makes it seem all the more real. You are down in the dirt and heat with these troops as it sears away at their bodies during their tour of duty. Their current tour lasts about a month, but when this movie is finished, it will certainly feel like a long month. Bigelow also shows the majority of the action from the soldiers POV and, like them, we are not able tell for sure whether the Iraqis staring at them from a distance are friendly or if they are terrorists waiting to push a button to set off a bomb which could very well be under our feet. She is clearly more interested in seeing how American troops survive in a land overwhelmingly hostile to their presence. Every moment these soldiers are out there is a matter of life and death, and the unpredictability of it all keeps them on their toes and at full attention 100% of the time.

The script was written by Mark Boal who also wrote the script for Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” another film dealing with the Iraq war and its effect on those who fought in it. Boal also spent some time in Iraq embedded with a real military bomb squad which became the source of this screenplay. What makes this unique among other Iraq war movies is it’s, thank god, not concerned with the politics of it all. Neither Boal nor Bigelow are interested in getting into a debate over whether or not we should have invaded Iraq, but instead in getting the detail to the letter of how this army squad does its job, and they appear to have captured this line of work perfectly. There is an authenticity here we cannot and should not question in the slightest.

Jeremy Renner is perfectly cast as William James, a military sergeant who seems to have gotten far past the realm of fear. The way the movie is designed, it could have tumbled into the clichés of “Top Gun” with Renner “grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes”. The fact it doesn’t descend into the kind of a film you’ve seen a hundred times is a credit not only to the filmmakers, but the actors as well. Renner gives us a character who is not entirely trustworthy, but not without a soul. His character perfectly personifies what Hedges talked about when he said war is a drug. He succeeds in showing us without words what effect this war has had on him. It has given him a strong sense of being alive he has not previously experienced anywhere else. But at the same time, he soon realizes how destructive it is not only to himself, but to others around him.

Another great performance comes from Anthony Mackie who plays Sergeant J.T. Sanborn. He is actually one step away from wearing that bomb suit William wears, but the more he comes close to human life lost so horrifically in this war, the more it brings him into full view of the things he really wants in life. What William takes for granted, Sanborn wants for himself. This could have been a role where Mackie could have easily become that drill instructor who is by the book and one dimensional. But instead, he gives us a character who is almost intimidated by what his new leader is able to accomplish as he is angered at his insubordination.

It’s amazing to see what Bigelow pulled off with “The Hurt Locker.” With a budget of only $11 million, she made a movie more intense, exciting, and thrilling than male directors could have made with multimillion budgets. The answer is not to give audiences tons of special effects with no discernable story or characters, but to give us a movie which draws us in emotionally no matter what the budget is. Perhaps if Hollywood ever bothered to realize this, then maybe there wouldn’t be so many bad movies or unnecessary remakes constantly being hurled at us.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘Kill the Messenger’ Pays Tribute to a Martyr for the Truth

Kill the Messenger movie poster

“The widespread use of drugs is a symptom of a sick society. The war on drugs is bullshit. Especially since the CIA is one of the biggest dealers around.”

-David Byrne in 1992

I don’t think it’s any secret our government, let alone any government in the world, was at one time or another complicit in drug dealing. It’s not like we don’t treat as if it’s no big thing, it’s just that we have gotten so used to it to where many don’t bother to acknowledge or do anything about it. But one man, Gary Webb, did not hesitate to expose the CIA for its involvement in drug smuggling back in the 1980’s, and he ended up paying the ultimate price for telling the truth.

Kill the Messenger” is one of many movies which is “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events,” but it deals with a story which needs to be told. Gary Webb was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper not known for doing international stories until he came along. We watch as he stumbles across a story dealing with the shady origins of the crack epidemic which spread throughout the nation’s inner cities, particularly in South Central Los Angeles. His investigation into the matter led him to discover how, in order to raise money for the fight against the Nicaraguan Sandinista Government, the CIA supported the cocaine smuggling of top members of Nicaraguan Contra Rebel organizations. When Webb published his articles on this story, which later became the basis for his book “Dark Alliance,” he won a lot of praise for his work, but then the roof caved in.

It’s no surprise the CIA came down hard on Webb as they began to conduct a vicious smear campaign on him which included veiled threats against his life. But what really stunned me was how rival newspapers went after him with a vengeance as he broke the story before they ever had a chance to investigate it. The Washington Post in particular hated how Webb broke the story as they were known for being first to report stories on the United States government, and their attacks on his credibility became more about protecting their own integrity as opposed to pursuing the truth. Taking this into account, it gives the audience an idea of just how cutthroat the newspaper business can be. As for myself, it makes me wonder if there is any business on this planet which is not cutthroat.

Playing Webb in “Kill the Messenger” is Jeremy Renner, and his performance here ranks among his best. He doesn’t try to make Webb a heroic character but instead a regular, ordinary man who does the job he is hired to do, and he does it really well. Renner makes us revel in Webb’s victories and feel for him when the whole world, even his own newspaper, suddenly turns against him. Not once does the actor overplay his role, and that he is able to keep Webb so grounded here is one of the things which makes “Kill the Messenger” work as well as it does.

Rosemarie DeWitt also shines as Webb’s wife, Susan. This could have been a throwaway role with DeWitt being left with little to do other than beg her husband to stop pursuing this story, but the actress makes Susan into the conscience Gary desperately needs through the toughest of times. Like Renner, DeWitt keeps the character grounded in a reality we can all relate to as she tries to make sense of a situation spiraling out of her husband’s control.

Directing “Kill the Messenger” is Michael Cuesta who also directed the powerful “L.I.E.” which the MPAA just had to give an NC-17 rating to for the most inexplicable of reasons. Could he have gone deeper with the subject matter that inspired this movie? Perhaps, but he makes a very good case for why we should be infuriated over why people were more interested in burying Gary Webb than they were in confronting how our government knew about and participated in the drug dealing being conducted on American soil.

Is this movie historically accurate to what actually happened in real life? I don’t know and I don’t care. Most movies based on true stories take liberties with the truth for dramatic purposes, and I doubt “Kill the Messenger” is an exception to that. What matters to me is this movie tells a compelling story which keeps you involved from start to finish, and Cuesta has given us just that. For those interested in getting to the absolute truth, try reading Webb’s “Dark Alliance” and Nick Schou’s book of the same name. This movie was based on both of those books.

“Kill the Messenger” joins the company of movies like “The Insider” and “Good Night and Good Luck” which are about people who decide to tell the truth and get punished for it in varying degrees. These days it seems like there are larger numbers of people who are more interested in their own monetary gain than they are in exposing wrongdoings. Webb’s story is one which deserves to be told as it is about a man whose job was to get to the truth of things, and the fact he was dragged through the coals because of that is one of the many unnecessary reminders of how unfair life can be. But in the end, he was vindicated, and this movie stands as a strong tribute to what he accomplished.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Check out the video below where I interviewed Jeremy Renner and Rosemarie DeWitt.

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.