Tsunami Survivor Maria Belon Reflects on ‘The Impossible’

The Impossible Maria Belon photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview was conducted back in 2012.

I can’t begin to tell you what an honor and a privilege it was to be sitting across from Maria Belon, a Spanish doctor who, along with her husband and three sons, miraculously survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Her story of survival is the focus of “The Impossible,” and she participated in a roundtable interview which I attended with several others. Belon may not see herself as a hero, but seeing her so lively and upbeat even after the horrific ordeal she endured is nothing short of inspiring.

In “The Impossible,” Belon is portrayed by Naomi Watts in a performance full of strength and raw emotion. We watch as Watts struggles to make her way to safety in the aftermath of the tsunami which decimated the coastal zone of Thailand, and it’s unnerving to see the injuries her character received which include a nasty gaping wound on one of her legs. Despite this, Belon said “nothing happened to us” (her and her family) because they survived. So, when J.A. Bayona, director of “The Orphanage,” came to her wanting to make a movie about the tsunami, she had to ask why.

Maria Belon: Why our story if we survived? Why in a story full of pain and full of loss pick up our story in which nothing happened? But then we understood that it was the only way of explaining the others’ pain was picking up a story of a family which nothing happened to.

The Impossible movie poster

For Bayona, the story of Belon’s family’s survival helped shed a light on the devastation left in the tsunami’s wake. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, and “The Impossible” never ever loses sight of this. But more importantly, it is a story about many people and what they suffered. It is not just about this one family. Belon made this clear when asked if it bothered her how her family was being portrayed by English actors instead of those of Spanish descent.

MB: I am fed up with this question all the time. This movie is not about nationalities, not about races, not about colors. It’s about human beings. One of the conditions we put is that there should be no nationality for the family. I don’t care if they would be black, brown or green skin. I wouldn’t care about anything.

Belon said she was involved in the making of “The Impossible” for several years and did have a say in the film’s casting. When Bayona asked Belon who her favorite actress was, she replied Naomi Watts because of her performance in “21 Grams.”

MB: When I saw her in “21 Grams” I thought (gasp) what is this woman about? When he (Bayona) told me that Naomi is going to portray Maria, I was like okay, then I’ll go around the world to the other end and I hide. I don’t want to meet her; I don’t want to disturb her.

But despite her fear she might jinx Watts, Belon did eventually meet the Oscar-nominated actress, and the two spent a lot of time together on the set. Belon said they talked a lot about life, being moms, being lucky, death, loss and just about everything else as well. Clearly, these two women developed a very strong bond with one another that is unbreakable.

One of the most powerful moments from the interview was when Belon talked about what she called the gifts the tsunami gave her. A natural disaster like this seems to take away much more than it could ever possibly give, but you have to admire her for finding any upside in the midst of such immense tragedy.

MB: This is one of the gifts the wave gave me: I don’t care about myself anymore. I only appreciate the moment. I don’t think about the past anymore, I don’t take photos of any memories, and I don’t plan anything for the future. I only have now.

But although Belon survived the tsunami, she said she “almost died three times.” Once while hanging on the branch of a tree with her son Lucas, and two other times in the hospital. She admitted to being tired of struggling to stay alive, but it was the appearance of her husband which kept her going.

MB: When I saw my husband, I was like ‘good! Now I can rest. He was so nice when he said, I didn’t come here for that!

As for her three boys, Belon did give us an enthusiastic update on where they are in their lives. Lucas is now 18 years old and training to be a doctor, and she described him as being “immensely brave.” She said what he took from the experience of the tsunami is how there is never enough of what you can do for others. Thomas, now 16, is at a school where he studies half the time and does community service for the other half, and he is also working as a lifeguard in Wales. As for Samuel, 13, she said he is wondering whether being a firefighter or a policeman would be the best way to help people. Overall, they have all come out of this experience wanting to help others.

I myself asked Belon if she has been back to Thailand since the tsunami, and if work still needs to be done to repair the damage left in its wake. She replied there is still a lot of work which needs to be done especially with the orphanages and the widows. Many of the buildings have been repaired, but the souls of those who were left without parents and loved ones still need a lot of mending.

Watching “The Impossible,” you come out of it feeling like you survived the tsunami along with these characters. I shared this thought with Belon who said of course as this was part of the movie’s overall design.

MB: When we had discussions with the director and we spent hours and hours talking about the film, I said’it’s unfair to come back from one of those experiences with so much presence you get that you don’t give back. I told Bayona that it’s a bit difficult, but you have to make people go under the wave, and they said, “WHAT?!” I said sorry, that’s the only way. You go under the water, you drown and you almost die and you come out of the cinema and say (gasp), I’m alive!

“The Impossible” is one of biggest box office hits in Spain’s history, and Belon is thrilled with the response it has received as she is with the film itself. She is not sure what she’s going to do next, but she did express interest in returning to work as a doctor. Even after all she has been through, she made it clear she’s not afraid of the water and said “it wasn’t the ocean’s fault” for what happened. She has also come out of this horrific situation with a no-nonsense attitude.

MB: I only do what I enjoy. If there’s something I don’t enjoy, I quit. I did this (the movie) because I enjoy it. If somebody would like to do something that I don’t like then I will just go, “Sorry, I don’t like it (laughs).”

Maria Belon may not be a hero, but considering what she has been through, you cannot help but see her as a tremendously inspiring person. We’re all glad she’s still with us to tell her story, and it is a story which will hold you tightly within its grasp.

“The Impossible” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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‘Cold Pursuit’ is Far More Devious Than the Average Liam Neeson Film

Cold Pursuit movie poster

I went into “Cold Pursuit” believing it would be a typical Liam Neeson action film and a cross between “Taken” and “Death Wish.” Heck, it feels like Neeson has been doing the same movie over and over in recent years as he keeps playing characters who are either out to rescue their children or avenge the loss of a loved one. As we watch Neeson operate heavy machinery in a place which looks infinitely colder than the one he traversed in “The Grey,” I kept waiting for him to say, “I have a particular set of snow plows I have acquired over a very long career…”

Indeed, “Cold Pursuit” has the attributes of the average Neeson action flick, but I was surprised to see it also has a wonderfully twisted sense of humor. Even as the violence gets increasingly brutal and the blood flows more frequently, I found myself laughing endlessly as Neeson’s quest for revenge inadvertently sets off a war between rival gangs intent on protecting their own self-interests. As a result, this film was and was not what I expected, and as it went on I had no idea of the twists and turns the story would end up taking.

Neeson plays Nels Coxman, an ordinary man who lives a quiet life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) in the small Colorado town of Kehoe. As “Cold Pursuit” begins, Nels has been given Kehoe’s Citizen of the Year award, something he accepts quite humbly as he considers his job as a snowplow driver nothing particularly special. Nels is also revealed to be a quiet man as his wife encourages him to speak more regularly at the dinner table and use as many words as President Abraham Lincoln said during his address at Gettysburg.

It doesn’t take long for tragedy to strike when Kyle dies of a heroin overdose. Nels refuses to believe his son could ever be a drug addict even when the police, long since hardened by the morbid work they do, remark how parents always say that. From there, the movie does not slow down as Nels goes from being the town’s key citizen to a vigilante as cold as the frosty weather he works in on a daily basis. Seeing him do deadly deeds either with a snowplow or a sawed-off rifle made me think of a line between Chevy Chase and Tim Matheson from “Fletch:”

“You shoot me, you’re liable to lose a lot of these humanitarian awards.”

Neeson inhabits the role of Nels as effectively as any he has played in the past, and I could tell he was having a lot of fun with this particular character from start to finish. Unlike the government agents and trained snipers he has played previously, Nels is nothing like them as he truly is an ordinary guy caught up in a situation he has no control over. At one point he even tells his brother, Brock “Wingman” Coxman (William Forsythe), how he learned about disposing dead bodies from a crime novel he once read.

“Cold Pursuit” also introduces to one of the slimiest and most comical drug kingpins I have seen in some time, Trevor “Viking” Calcote. Trevor is played by Tom Bateman in an inspired performance as he makes this drug dealer as brutal as he is hilariously hypocritical. While he shows no remorse in offing another human being, he is equally intense when it comes to making sure his son learns all he can about life from William Golding’s classic novel “The Lord of the Flies” while eating foods which do not contain the slightest ounce of high fructose corn syrup.

What intrigued me most about “Cold Pursuit” was how Nels’ quest for vengeance ends up triggering a turf war between drug dealers and American Indian gang members. In the process, we are subtly reminded of how America was stolen from the Indians (they are called Native Americans for a reason folks) and that the word “reservation” has more than one meaning. In this small Colorado town, a bad review on Yelp or Trip Advisor can be every bit as damaging as a bullet. This all results in a motion picture with a body count somewhere in between Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and John Woo’s “Hard Boiled.”

“Cold Pursuit” is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian thriller “In Order of Disappearance” which starred Stellan Skarsgard, and both films were directed by the same man, Hans Petter Moland. Learning of this made me wonder if Moland would fall intro the same trap George Sluizer did when he remade “The Vanishing” in America and changed the ending to disastrous effect. However, it looks like little was loss in the translation as this remake retains much of the brutality and black humor of the original. This was a giant relief to me after witnessing the misbegotten remake of “Miss Bala” which all but neutered the original for the sake of a PG-13 rating. Unlike “Miss Bala,” this film is anything but generic.

If there is any issue I have with this film, it is the inescapable fact that Laura Dern is completely wasted here. She is always a welcome appearance in anything she appears in, but she disappears from “Cold Pursuit” way too soon to where I wondered why they bothered casting her at all. Frankly, I am getting sick of seeing Dern reduced to playing the helpless housewife whose love is wasted on male characters who fail to return it in equal measure. She deserves much better.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by “Cold Pursuit” as it proves to be an effective thriller and a twisted delight. For those who like their humor especially black, this is a film worth checking out as it features everything including a child who knows all there is to know about the Stockholm Syndrome. More importantly, it features female characters played by Emmy Rossum and Julia Jones who are far stronger than their male counterparts who are too caught up in their own jealousy and self-interest. The scene where Jones shows how she has her ex-husband by the balls, literally and figuratively speaking, is one which will never be quickly forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

 

‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ Director J.A. Bayona Talks About Making ‘The Impossible’

The Impossible JA Bayona photo

Spanish film director Juan Antonio Bayona, or J.A. Bayona for short, made a name for himself in 2007 with the horror movie “The Orphanage.” It earned him the respect of his fellow Spaniard Guillermo Del Toro who helped produce the film, and it became a big box office hit worldwide. These days he is known for directing “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” which is expected to be one of the biggest hits of the 2018 summer movie season.

Following “The Orphanage,” Bayona was offered a number of movies to direct including “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” but he was really interested in doing something far more challenging to take on. Bayona found the challenge he was looking for with “The Impossible,” a movie based on the true story of a family that survived the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand. What Bayona accomplished showed him to have great skill in getting strong performances out of an incredibly gifted cast, and he staged a tsunami scene so horrific, it puts the one in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” to utter shame. The movie proves to be a cinematic experience as brilliant as it is gut wrenching to watch, and you won’t be able to ignore Bayona’s talent after you have seen it.

Bayona was at the Los Angeles press conference for “The Impossible” which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California back in 2012, and I was fortunate enough to attend his roundtable interview. We all thanked him for making this film which we agreed was one of the very best of the year.

The Impossible movie poster

Question: This is a great movie. Did you realize the scope of it when you got involved? Did you realize how inspiring it would be to moviegoers in general?

J.A. Bayona: Well it was getting bigger and bigger as much as we were getting into it. The first impact we had when we heard Maria (Belon’s) story was very emotional, and we wanted to figure out where that emotion was coming from. Even though it is a tough story and we’re talking about a tragedy, the emotion was coming not from a dark place. It was something that was coming from the way these people gave to the other ones in the worst moment. So, I thought that was very powerful and it was a very beautiful idea of approaching that. But then you talk to Maria and you realize how much suffering there is still nowadays. They call it “survivor’s guilt” even though she doesn’t like to call it that. She will talk about survival suffering because she doesn’t feel guilty for anything she did, but it’s really that there is a lot of suffering. I thought that would be interesting to tell the story of this family going there and then going back home and not talking about a disaster in a compassionate way and where you only talk about whether you live or you die. There’s a lot of gray space in the middle. From the very first meeting that we had we agreed that this was not just the family story. It was the story of many people, but the whole ending talks about that; how do you go home to the real world when your real world disappears? I like to see the film tell the story about the end of innocence. They don’t feel the same anymore, they lose the sense of security and their life is not the same anymore.

Q: How big of a challenge was this movie for you?

JAB: Well of course there was a huge challenge in the technical aspects of the film, but for me that was exciting and I was not worried about that. The real challenge was how to portray the story of the people who were there and how to give the big picture of what went on there and being respectful of the time.

Q: How much the movie was real and how much what was done with CGI? The movie looks very real even though some of those effects were probably done digitally.

JAB: Well it had to be like that because the story was very simple in reality so it could look like a visual effects movie. It had to feel real all the time. We did a lot of things for real like practical shooting and practical effects, and we also used a lot of CGI for greeneries and digital composition. But the great thing is to always mix several techniques so there’s a moment where everything gets lost so the audience doesn’t know what they are watching.

Q: Was anything done to reduce the carbon footprint of the movie or in trying to conserve resources?

JAB: Everything these days is now very regulated, so you have to be very respectful. For example, in shooting the water sequences in Spain the waters had to be darkened with a coloring used for food because that water had to be sent back again to the sea. Everything had to be natural. The water had to be decidedly desalinated before it got sent back to the sea.

Q: Did you think about shooting the movie in another country other than Spain, or was it always your intention to shoot there?

JAB: We did it in Spain because we found this huge water tank which is the second biggest in the world I think. So it was the perfect place to shoot all of the water sequences and once we finished with that we went to Thailand and we shot in the same places the tsunami took place in.

Q: The sound design in this movie is incredible, especially in the opening sequence. The screen is black but you already feel like you’re underwater. Can you tell us more about the sound design for this movie?

JAB: One of the things that I soon realized is that the characters didn’t have time to stop and think about what was happening. Everything was so fast that we had to deal more with emotions and sensory details. I was intellectualizing the sequence a lot with the actors, but in the end in front of the camera everything had to be sensorial and about the emotions. Sound has a great role in the film, and I talked a lot with Maria about the sounds and she was telling me for example that the sounds of the wave reminded her of the engine of the plane. This is the moment where I had the idea of starting with the sound of the engine because the movie was already starting and finishing on a plane. The way the plane sounds at the beginning and at the end is completely different, and that sets the behavior of the characters of how they go to Thailand and how they came back from Thailand. The sound of the way was very interesting. It sounds wilder underwater than on the surface because that’s where the danger was with all the debris and all the things which were dangerous for the people who were in the water were underwater. Maria was telling the also about the bloody birds, and I said, “What do you mean by the bloody birds?” She told me, “Once the water receded and we were completely alone in the debris and the devastation I started listening to the birds singing like nothing had happened, and I hated them at that moment because nothing happened to them.” This gave me the idea of how nature goes back to normal and that puts the characters very close to reality at the time, so of course we played a lot with this sound and with the music. It’s very interesting to see how music plays a lot with things that the characters can find the words to explain. I remember the moment when Maria was being dragged by this old man, and she sent me a message that was four pages of all these things that she felt in that moment. And in that sequence you only have a man dragging a woman so I focused only on Naomi’s eyes and I put some small music in their going up slowly, and only with that Naomi’s performance and only with their eyes and seeing the connection between this woman and this man. Using some notes of music, I was able to try to create a thought provoking experience in the audience, and that deals a lot with the four pages that Maria sent me.

Q: When this project began it was intended to be a Spanish production with Spanish actors, but then it became this huge thing. When did you decide to make this change?

JAB: Well we wrote the script in Spanish and we soon realized that 80% of the dialogue was already in English because people had to talk in English to be understandable to each other. Also I didn’t want to put the accent on nationalities because I wanted to portray all the people on the same level. I wanted to portray all the people like people, no nationalities. So it felt natural to go to English-speaking actors because first of all to finance a movie like this you need important names, but most of all I never wanted to put an accent on nationalities. If you see the film, they never say where they are from. All the time they talk about going back home. I wanted them to be very universal like a wide canvas so you can project yourself in there.

“The Impossible” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital, and “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom” arrives in theaters on June 22, 2018.

 

‘The Ghost Writer’ Shows Roman Polanski Has Not Lost His Touch as a Filmmaker

The Ghost Writer movie poster

The act of ghost writing a book for a celebrity, be it a memoir or perhaps a children’s book, seems like a cheat. Granted, there are a lot of celebrities out there who do in fact write their own books, sometimes with the help of another, and good for them. But you can’t convince me O.J. Simpson wrote that book which contained his supposed confession of the double murder he committed back in 1994 that claimed his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. By now, we should know Simpson is going to be the last one to admit to any wrongdoing, and the idea behind it was pathetic to say the least. Still, there was a nice sum of money involved in this particular ghost-written book, and Simpson was struggling financially.

What really has me wondering about this whole process itself is who the ghost writer is, and of how they about seeing their work being credited to another who didn’t write it. On one hand, you avoid a lot of the hoopla and screaming fans who worship the work to an unhealthy extent, but the benefits you get out of it are depressingly minimal it seems. You are basically an anonymous person in a sea of people who get far more attention than they deserve, and this makes you easily expendable as a result.

Now I’m not mistaking “The Ghost Writer” as the definitive example of what a writer like this goes through, but the feeling of replacing someone or fearing you will be easily replaced cannot leave one in a state of supreme confidence. But what the movie version of Robert Harris’ book shows is how it can make for a really good mystery thriller.

“The Ghost Writer” is the film Roman Polanski made while he was “wanted and desired,” and it’s the same one he managed to finish post-production on while under house arrest. The writer of the movie’s title is played by Ewan McGregor, and to add to some vivid illustration to the title, we never learn his character’s real name throughout the entire running time.  Anyway, he gets a very lucrative job offer from a publishing firm CEO, played by James Belushi of all people, to ghost write the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It turns out that McGregor’s predecessor on this project died in an apparent suicide, and his body was found washed up on the beach.

Once hired, McGregor is taking to Lang’s oceanfront house on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England. Of course, this was actually filmed in Germany as Polanski could not step on American soil without getting arrested. Upon looking over the manuscript from the deceased writer, and in his talks with Lang, McGregor comes to discover this ex-Prime Minister may have been involved in handing over suspected terrorists in Britain to the CIA for torture. The closer he gets to the truth, the more he fears he will end up like his predecessor.

After all these years, Polanski still knows how to make an excellent thriller, and he manages to maintain a strong level of suspense and intensity over the movie’s two hour plus running time. Throughout “The Ghost Writer” he is extra careful not to reveal too much of what’s going on, and it leaves us guessing as to what the truth really is. Like McGregor, we are left to sift through the clues left behind and figure out how they all add up.

McGregor doesn’t play any writer here, but instead one eager to get at the truth which is just within their grasp, and that’s even if they know they will not like what they see. McGregor gives a really strong performance here as the ghost writer, and Polanski succeeds in putting us in his shoes to where we feel as lost as him as he gets deeper into uncovering long kept secrets. During a chase scene, we are in the actor’s mindset, and even we can’t figure where to go or who to trust.

Also great in “The Ghost Writer” is Brosnan who plays an ex-Prime Minister who bares a not so subtle resemblance to Tony Blair. This gives the former James Bond actor the continued opportunity to shed his 007 image as Adam Lang in a way he must have been eager to do. Behind this image, we see on the television screen a man stuck in a moral contradiction he will never be able to escape. Flanked by his wife, a team of advisors, and besieged by a plethora of angry protestors out for his blood, Brosnan gives us a character you almost have to admire in how he manages to keep many things to himself despite an unrelenting pressure to reveal stuff he’d rather not reveal.

Olivia Williams is also terrific as Lang’s wife, Ruth, and she herself is a complex study in emotions. In the face of her advisors, Ruth has a tough façade which screams out “don’t bullshit me” whenever possible. But when Ruth is alone with the ghost writer, she lets this mask down to reveal someone who feels hopelessly trapped in a situation she has no real control over. She was probably promised something much different in life, something more positive, but she now looks back on it all as one big lie. Taking her character through different levels of emotion is fascinating to watch, and Williams holds our attention completely whenever she is onscreen.

I also loved seeing Kim Cattrall here as well, and her British accent was absolutely flawless. As Amelia, Lang’s personal assistant and mistress, she manages to keep the coolest face despite escalating controversies which threaten to define this ex-Prime Minister as a deceptive war criminal. Her strictness of directions can be seen through her sexy smile, and she holds her own against Lang’s wife with aplomb. There is an innate sexiness to Cattrall’s performance in how she goes about her days not losing a beat, and it is enthralling to see what she pulls off here.

There are also a number of familiar faces to be found in “The Ghost Writer.” You also have Timothy Hutton who plays Lang’s American lawyer Sidney Kroll, Tom Wilkinson who portrays Harvard law professor Paul Emmett, and even Eli Wallach shows up in a memorable cameo. In some cases, their appearances could have really taken us out of the movie, but none of them are able to hide the fact the real star of “The Ghost Writer” is Polanski.

Ironically, Polanski is in a good position with “The Ghost Writer” as the shadow of his most famous movies like “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby” are not hanging over this one. Throughout the years, he was trapped by his earlier work which he received so much critical acclaim for, and it affected his later movies like “Bitter Moon” and “The Ninth Gate” to name a few. But every so often he gives us a motion picture to remind us of how he has never lost his unique talent for filmmaking.

We see so many directors drop the ball in terms of maintaining suspense, but Polanski has not lost a beat, and this film sees him hitting his stride again. Many will say “The Ghost Writer” is the kind of movie which doesn’t get made anymore, but Polanski calls Hollywood’s bluff on that to where this is one which cannot be missed.

* * * 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 * * * *

 

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: La La Land

La La Land movie poster

I cannot believe how ridiculously long it took me to watch this movie which won Best Picture for about three or four minutes at this year’s Oscars. “La La Land” is Damien Chazelle’s eagerly awaited follow-up to “Whiplash,” my favorite movie of 2014. Due to not being invited to any press screenings for it, working to pay my bills, buying Christmas presents for my family and working to pay them off as well, taking care of the rent and my overall sanity, I could never make the time to see it. They say life happens when you’re busy making plans, but I’m too busy to even make any kind of plan.

Well, I finally had the opportunity to check out “La La Land” and it is, in a word, superb. From its opening sequence all the way to the end titles, it is a wonderful homage to the movie musicals of the past, and it serves as a dedication to all the dreamers out there who dare to make their passions their livelihood and are willing to make fools of themselves in the process. Just like Akira Kurosawa once said, “In order to survive in an insane world, you have to be crazy.”

The movie starts off on a typical sunny Los Angeles day on the LA freeway of your choice with cars at a complete standstill. It could be the 110, the 105 or the 405 we are watching, but it doesn’t matter because they all turn into used car lots once rush hour hits. Next thing you know, everyone is bursting into the song “Another Day of Sun,” and it’s Chazelle’s way of showing you how exhilarating “La La Land” will be to watch. It starts off with an infectious energy, and it never loses it once the song is over.

We are introduced to Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who auditions constantly, shares an apartment with several female roommates, and works as a barista at a café located on a studio lot. She does the best she can at auditions, but some of them last only a few seconds before she is thanked for her time and escorted to the door. Soon afterward, we meet Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz musician who yearns to see this art form live on instead of being ruined by current forms which manipulate into something very artificial. Eventually, we know these two will hook up.

Like the most romantic of couples, Mia and Sebastian do not get off to the best start as she gives him the finger after he honks his car horn for an insidiously long time (I hate it when people do that) at her when she keeps him waiting on the freeway. Even after Mia walks into a jazz bar upon hearing Sebastian play an impassioned improvisational riff while being forced to play classic Christmas songs, he is quick to brush her off as he heads for the door. But the two eventually consummate their budding romance after a screening of “Rebel Without a Cause,” and from there we watch as their romance goes through exhilarating heights and emotionally draining lows.

Watching “La La Land” reminded me of how singing can be the most emotionally challenging art of all as it forces you to be open in a way we typically are not in everyday life. You can be a brilliant singer, but all the technique you bring to it won’t mean a thing if you don’t bring any real feeling to the song. When it comes to many movie musicals, they can feel emotionally manipulative or overly sentimental to where you find yourself cringing like you did when Darth Vader yelled out “nooooo” in “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” But every single moment in “La La Land” feels earned as the cast makes it all feel truly genuine, and I never came out of this movie feeling like I was played like a piano. Everything in this movie felt earned, and I was enamored by everything I witnessed.

Also, Chazelle gets everything about Los Angeles down perfectly. Whether it’s the standstill traffic on the freeways, the street signs we never pay attention to until it’s too late, the incredible view of the city from the Hollywood Hills, the Griffith Observatory, the single screen movie theaters or even those auditions where an assistant just has to walk into the room while you are doing your thing for the casting directors, he gets at all the things a struggling artist is forced to endure while fighting against stiff odds. This is not the kind of musical which takes place in some fantastical world, but instead in a reality we all know and understand.

Of course, to many, Los Angeles is still a fantastical place, and it certainly shows here thanks to the beautiful cinematography of Linus Sandgren. “La La Land” almost looks like something from the 1950’s with Sandgren’s use of many beautiful colors, and we get caught up in the magic this crazy city has to offer after all these years. I have lived in Los Angeles for a number of years now, and I can tell you honestly that it is not as glamorous as it is often portrayed in the media. Still, it is a place for creative minds to come up with something extraordinary, and this movie reminded me of this.

Emma Stone is simply sublime as the aspiring Mia as she captures all the heartache, joy and persistence any actor has experienced in pursuit of a seemingly impossible dream. Her face is luminous and can say so much without her having to say single a word at times, and she makes you feel Mia’s every emotion as she suffers every triumph and career setback. But her biggest show-stopping moment comes when she sings the song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” in which the camera stays on her for several minutes. It’s an incredibly captivating moment and makes me see why she could have won an Oscar over Isabelle Huppert who was nominated for “Elle.”

As for Ryan Gosling, he still remains a sexy son of a bitch whom the ladies swoon over every single minute of every single day, and I guess I just have to live with that. But seriously, he perfectly embodies the dreamer who is forced to compromise his passion for the sake of survival, and he communicates the aching confusion Sebastian feels as he desperately tries to rationalize his choices as a means of convincing himself that he is not selling out. Whether you think Sebastian is selling out or not, Gosling makes you sympathize with him as we come to wonder what we have done to convince ourselves of the actions we take in life.

Yes, I think “La La Land” more than lived up to the hype, and it establishes Damien Chazelle as one of the most promising film directors working today. It could have easily been a silly trifle of a musical, but Chazelle’s heart and soul shine through every frame as he pays tributes to all those who dared to dream and constantly risked failure at every turn. Like the best movies, it stays with you long after it has ended, and it takes you on a wondrous journey I feel I haven’t been on in a very, very long time.

* * * * out of * * * *

Hacksaw Ridge

hacksaw-ridge-movie-poster

I want to start off first by applauding director Mel Gibson for using the term “A True Story” as opposed to “Based on a True Story” when he starts off “Hacksaw Ridge.” You all know how much I have come to despise the term “Based on a True Story” as it has long since lost its meaning, and I have to give credit to Gibson for altering this phrase here. As a director, you know he’s not about to take the easy way out or give us something which feels emotionally false. This continues to be the case with “Hacksaw Ridge,” his first directorial effort in ten years.

This movie tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who joined the Army in World War II to serve as a medic. The only thing is, he joins as a conscientious objector and refuses to carry a weapon of any kind into the battlefield. At the Battle of Okinawa, he succeeded in rescuing 75 wounded soldiers without firing a single shot, and he was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his acts which went above and beyond the call of duty.

Desmond is played as a young adult by Andrew Garfield, and he is very deserving of the Oscar nomination he received for his performance. From start to finish, the British-American actor imbues Desmond with an unshakable faith in a higher power, and I never saw this faith waiver for a single second. Seeing him square off with a fellow soldier who assumes he is a coward for not picking up a rifle is fascinating as Garfield’s eyes emit a hard-won bravery the others around him only think they possess. This even comes across as he pursues Nurse Dorothy Schutte (the luminous Teresa Palmer) as obsessively as Dustin Hoffman chased Katherine Ross around town in “The Graduate” to where you wonder if anything could stand in Desmond’s way at all.

We all know Gibson is a devoutly religious person, and not just because he made “The Passion of the Christ.” Indeed, “Hacksaw Ridge” could have easily looked silly if it took its subject far too seriously or tried to indoctrinate us or push some agenda, but Gibson doesn’t make those mistakes. The director treats Desmond with the respect he deserves, and he was clearly determined not to make him look like a joke. Desmond was the real deal, and he found the perfect actor to portray him in Garfield.

Gibson also wades through a wealth of war movie clichés which do take away from the final cut, but the scenes are elevated by a number of strong performances from a well-chosen cast. Hugo Weaving of “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” fame (“Welcome to Rivendale, Mr. Anderson”) is a big standout as Desmond’s father, Tom. Being a war veteran himself, Tom has seen the vicious damage it has done to the soul and the psyche. Weaving makes Tom more than the average abusive drunk you see in cinema as he shows his character’s pain over the memories he can’t drink away, and of the terror he wishes to keep his sons from experiencing themselves.

Rachel Griffiths provides the yin to Weaving’s yang in her performance as Desmond’s mom, Bertha, who enforces in her son the importance of God’s commandments, especially the one which states “thou shalt not kill.” She also gives Bertha a strong gravitas which Garfield benefits richly from as the movie goes on, and you can see how her presence remained a strong one in Desmond’s life.

Then there’s Vince Vaughn who gives his best performance in quite some time as Army Drill Sergeant Howell. While his work may pale in comparison to R. Lee Ermey’s brutal performance in “Full Metal Jacket,” at least Vaughn invests Howell with a strong dose of human you wouldn’t often expect characters like these to have in war movies.

But the real meat of “Hacksaw Ridge” comes in the last section during the battle sequences. Now Gibson might not be able to match Steven Spielberg’s powerful realism when it came to those unforgettable opening minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” but he tops him when it comes to bloody carnage. Bullets fly everywhere, limbs are blown off and guts are laid out for rats to chew on. This should be no surprise as this movie comes from the director of “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Apocalypto,” and like those movies, it features a protagonist who has to wade through body parts and blood in order to receive any kind of salvation.

Along with director of photography Simon Duggan, Gibson gives us some of the most visceral and best war movies I have seen in a long time as he shows you the damage war leave in its wake as well as what it does to the souls of those in the front line. It also gives a real-life superhero who selflessly risked his life to help those who could no longer help themselves. While certain sections are undone a bit by an innate corniness which comes with unavoidable clichés, Gibson gives us a war movie for the ages which, in the wrong hands, could have become silly and heavy-handed, but in his, it becomes a celebration of a man who saved so many without even firing a bullet.

“Hacksaw Ridge” had been in development hell for 14 years, and the rights to it were at one point in the hands of Walden Media which wanted to turn Desmond’s story into a PG-13 movie. Something tells me this would have been a mistake as sanitizing the struggles of war would have been an insult to those who fought for our freedoms. Yes, this is an ultra-violent motion picture, but for good reason. Could we have appreciated what Desmond without having a clear view of the chaos he and other soldiers put themselves into? I think not.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Now You See Me 2’ Wants To Be Cleverer Than It Is

Now You See Me 2 poster

There’s a great moment, one of the very few, in the 007 adventure “Die Another Day” when James Bond is being presented with the latest nifty gadget from Q. Upon seeing what the gadget does, Bond tells Q, “You know, you’re cleverer than you look.” To this Q replies, “Still, better than looking cleverer than you are.” Those lines of dialogue kept repeating in my head as I watched “Now You See Me 2,” a movie which tries to be cleverer than its predecessor. But in the process, this follow up become so infinitely exhausting as it heedlessly defies logic more often than not.

We follow up with the Four Horsemen a few years after the events of the first movie, and they have managed to stay in hiding regardless of how impossible it is to stay off the grid these days. But Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are soon brought out of retirement to expose a Steve Jobs-like tech guru whose fraudulent practices have caused hardship for millions of people. Henley Reeves is out of the group, due to Isla Fisher’s pregnancy, and in her place is Lula (Lizzy Caplan) who quickly proves to be more than just a wannabe magician.

They work again in conjunction with FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who was previously revealed to be the one who brought the Four Horsemen together, but their big comeback show goes awry when it is sabotaged by someone who shows that Jack never died and of Dylan’s role in the whole endeavor. That someone is revealed to be Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), a tech prodigy who invested a lot of money in companies run by Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and lost much of it after the Horsemen stole Tressler’s millions. Walter wants his money back and forces the group to pull off their greatest heist yet, and they run into additional trouble when the imprisoned Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) finds a way to get his revenge from behind bars.

“Now You See Me” was a runaway hit back in 2013 and, while it had a number of plot holes, it proved to be a fun ride and had a terrific cast of actors whose charisma made it all the more watchable. But this same cast, even with new additions Caplan and Radcliffe, can’t save this sequel as we come to spend more time debunking their actions than we do in just going along for the ride. While I am prepared to suspend my disbelief through many films, it became impossible to do so with this one.

Watching “Now You See Me 2” becomes increasingly ingratiating as so many random characters try to stay one step ahead of each other. But while we go to a movie like this to see good defeat bad, the filmmakers have tried much too hard to keep the audience guessing from start to finish. Considering how this sequel takes place in a time long after movies like the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy have been released, you would think the bad guys would be better prepared. Then again, crime does make you stupid.

If it weren’t for the talented cast, this movie would be almost unwatchable. Ruffalo, Harrelson and Eisenberg have an effortless charisma about them, and they slip back into these roles as if a day hadn’t passed since the original. Both Caine and Freeman could play their roles in their sleep, and that’s what they do here. While it’s a bummer Fisher couldn’t return, Caplan proves to be an engaging presence and her enthusiasm is wonderful to take in. And it’s great to see Radcliffe join in with this ensemble as he reminds us of something which should be abundantly clear by now: there’s much to him than Harry Potter.

Behind the camera this time is Jon M. Chu who previously directed the “Step Up” sequels, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Jem and the Holograms,” a movie better known for its terrible box office opening weekend than anything else. While Louis Leterrier, who directed the original (he is an executive producer on this one), managed to keep things going at a steady pace, Chu stretches things out to where this sequel overstays its welcome by at least half an hour. He also ends this movie in a way which makes no logical sense considering where certain characters ended up in the original. Long before it ended, I found myself having a headache that had Excedrin written all over it, and I knew taking any would not make me feel any better.

You can only fool an audience for so long until they start analyzing the story very closely. When they start asking questions during the movie’s running time, you are in trouble. “Now You See Me 2” gets undone because the filmmakers didn’t care if it all made sense or not. Instead, they end up insulting our intelligence to where you wonder if it was worth it to even make this sequel.

In the future, I would love to see a prequel to this sequel in which we watch the characters get together and figure out how they will pull all their plans and magic tricks off. It will be worth watching just to see if the characters can convince themselves, let alone the audience, that their mischievous plans make any sense whatsoever regardless of the unpredictable variables which will come their way. If they can accomplish that, you will have one hell of a movie.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * out of * * * *