Denzel Day #3 – “Courage Under Fire” (1996)

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Over a span of two months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.

When it hit theaters in July of 1996 “Courage Under Fire” was Hollywood’s first big movie about the Persian Gulf War. But it was far from what could be perceived as a run-of-the-mill war picture. Combat served as a narrative backdrop for what is more accurately a military mystery. It’s one man’s search for the truth and how his personal state of mind depends on being able to tell it to someone…anyone.

In 1996 Denzel Washington was already in top form, here playing Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling. The film opens with him leading a tank platoon into combat just outside of Baghdad. In the chaos of war Serling gives the order to fire on a tank his spotter (Sean Astin) identifies as an enemy but which turns out to be a friendly. US soldiers are killed, the Army covers it up, and Serling is given a desk job at the Pentagon.

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Serling works under General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty) who knows the truth but is intent on keeping it under wraps. He gives Serling a new assignment – to run an inquiry on the recommendation to award the Medal of Honor to a female helicopter pilot killed in the line of duty. Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) would be the first woman to receive the honor and the White House is giddy over the optics of a big televised Rose Garden ceremony.

But as Serling begins carrying out what should be a routine inquiry, he immediately notices discrepancies in the testimonies from the soldiers who survived the incident where Walden lost her life. Unable to bear the burden of another cover-up, Serling sets out to find the truth amid intense pressure from Hershberg and the White House to wrap up his investigation quickly and quietly.

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Director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan do a remarkable job with some pretty tricky material. As Serling interviews the soldiers flashbacks capture their perspectives of the events leading to Walden’s death. The filmmakers deftly handle these transitions both narratively and visually. Duncan’s script is full of strategically revealed detail and information while Zwick gives it visual form through the lens of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins.

There is also a smart and humanizing personal side to the story. Throughout the film we see Serling still haunted by his experience on the battlefield and the truth he knows that needs to be told. He has nightmares, his drinking is out of control, and the stress has driven a wedge between him and his wife (a really good Regina Taylor) and children. His investigation is a way to occupy his mind and keep him from coping.

Washington is truly the linchpin of the film displaying his signature charisma and a subtle intensity that seeps out into every scene. Yet he’s always under control even as his character is emotionally crumbling. Meg Ryan is also quite good. Her tough girl military jargon isn’t always convincing but the variations within her performance certainly are. She’s asked to act out the same scenario several times but each from a different person’s point of view.

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Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips are both fantastic as soldiers with very different recollections of Walden and what happened to her. Scott Glenn is a good fit playing a former Ranger but now Washington Post reporter who knows Serling and the Army are covering up what took place on the battlefield near Baghdad.

“Courage Under Fire” is a military drama that delves into an assortment of interesting themes from the deep personal costs of war to women in combat. Its central mystery is compelling even though it takes some time before we finally get to the truth. And even though the emotion is pretty thick in the final 15 minutes it still feels earned.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

Denzel Day #2 : “Crimson Tide” (1995)

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Over a span of three months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.

Submarine thrillers are a special brand of war movie. Because of their isolated locations and confined spaces, the bulk of their focus is on the interpersonal drama between characters. Perhaps that’s one reason there aren’t very many of them. And of those out there, the ones that do get the character-driven drama right are the ones that stand out from the others. “Crimson Tide” gets it right.

Tony Scott directed this tense undersea thriller that is surprisingly intimate despite having all of the big budget trimmings. Both Michael Schiffer’s snappy script and the strong supporting cast (particularly Viggo Mortensen, George Dzundza, and James Gandofini) are dressing for the charisma and fierce screen presence of the movie’s two leads – Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman.

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Drawing inspiration from the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Crimson Tide” takes place as political turmoil embroils post-Soviet Russia giving rise to civil war and ultra-nationalist bomb-thrower Vladimir Radchenko. This radical rebel leader declares war against the Russian government while threatening a nuclear attack against the United States for their involvement in war-ravaged Chechnya. Needless to say tensions are high.

The United States submarine USS Alabama is sent to the region armed with nuclear missiles to either be a deterrent to a Radchenko attack or to wage a pre-emptive strike which would certainly lead to all-out nuclear war. Hackman plays the vessel’s Commanding Officer Captain Frank Ramsey. He’s a hard-nosed leader who has been commanding ships for over twenty years. Washington plays Ramsey’s new Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter. He comes highly regarded from the Naval Academy and even has a year at Harvard, but no military experience.

These two big personalities begin to clash, at first over small things such as philosophies and by-the-book protocols. But when tensions in the region escalate and the ship is ordered to DEFCON 3, their dramatically different approaches in the face of potential nuclear war could determine the fate of billions. Their main beef is over two emergency action messages from Washington. The first orders the vessel to launch missiles at a Russian nuclear site. The second message is cut off before it can be fully transmitted.

With communications down Hunter pushes to be prudent and cautious until the second message can be retrieved. Ramsey is more headstrong and impulsive, choosing to follow the orders of the first message while disregarding the second. Assertions of aggression, insubordination, and mutiny splits the crew and raises the story’s dramatic tension. It sets up the film’s biggest conflict as emotionally charged, high stakes back-and-forths between CO and XO stand in for the normal big action set pieces.

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Once we enter the submarine we never leave until the very last scene. During our time underwater we run into several familiar tropes: water bursting into a lower decks, crew members running down tight corridors, a fire in the galley. Those things are nothing new. But it’s Washington and Hackman as the film’s centerpieces who drive the story. Their performances are (as you would expect) top-notch and the screenplay gives them several big moments.

Neither Scott nor Schiffer seem worried about the deeper details of the crisis or the geopolitics at its center. That’s a good thing as it keeps the narrative tighter and more focused. It also enables the film to be exactly what it wants to be. “Crimson Tide” doesn’t aim to be some deeply psychological or politically charged story. It’s very straightforward mainstream entertainment with two dynamic box office leads and solid supporting work. That’s more than enough for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Crawl” (2019)

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Let’s be honest, it’s hard to enter the new movie “Crawl” without some level of snark and skepticism. I mean we are talking about people being terrorized by man-eating alligators during a Category 5 hurricane. On concept alone it would be easy to dismiss as a throwaway B-movie maybe worth renting after you’ve seen everything else in your local Redbox.

But oh how I love it when a movie surprises me. “Crawl” has no ambitions of being anything other than what it is. It just does what it does incredibly well. It’s a tightly-wound, no-nonsense thriller; a throwback creature-feature that utilizes every second of its lean 88-minute runtime.

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The first hint that this could actually be pretty good was seeing Sam Raimi’s name attached. He produces alongside the film’s writer/director Alexandre Aja. Their story is light but their characters are given a surprising amount of depth considering how much time they spend in peril. Family dynamics are laid out and we get enough personal stakes to make us genuinely care about them.

Kaya Scodelario drives the movie with an intensely committed lead performance. She plays Haley, a swimmer for the University of Florida who gets a call from her concerned sister who hasn’t been able to reach their father (played by Barry Pepper). He isn’t answering his phone and with a massive hurricane bearing down his window to evacuate is shrinking.

Haley agrees to check on her dad before she leaves town. She discovers him injured in a crawlspace underneath their old family lake house. It doesn’t take long for her to find out what caused his injury – a massive alligator under the house lurking in the shadows. Trapped there with her father, a growing number of gators, and rising flood waters from the hurricane sets the table for a tension-soaked (and sometimes bloody) survival-horror thrill ride.

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One of the first things to impress me was Aja’s camera particularly when shooting in tight spaces. For a movie like this it’s imperative that the audience feel they are in those spaces with the characters. The danger needs to feel palpable. Aja’s camera pulls us in with great effect whether he’s shooting in claustrophobic spaces below the house or giving us tense underwater shots. Combine that with fantastic work from production designer Alan Gilmore who offers up some visually impressive and thoroughly convincing storm effects.

“Crawl” works well because it embraces its simplicity and sticks to its premise. There’s no needless filler or pointless melodrama. Instead we get exciting thrills, economic storytelling, and just enough character development to make us care. And with such good visual technique and devoted central performances, you can’t help but be immersed regardless of how silly the whole thing sounds.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Child’s Play” (2019)

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Am I wrong or are we witnessing the resurgence of the slasher sub-genre into mainstream horror? I first noticed it with the tame but surprisingly fun “Happy Death Day”. But it really stood out is when Hollywood starting bringing back old franchises. Last year “Halloween” was a big hit and a few rumors are swirling about a possible “Scream” sequel. But if there was one series I never expected to see back on a big screen it was “Child’s Play”. Yet here we are.

I remember when the original “Child’s Play” released in 1988. It was a unique and playful entry into a horror genre that frankly was growing a little stale. It was easy to laugh along with the movie but not with the host of terrible sequels that followed. Yet 2017’s unwatchably bad “Cult of Chucky” showed it still had life as a straight-to-streaming series. But now it’s actually back in theaters, remade and rebooted for a new audience. At least I think it’s for a new audience. I certainly wasn’t longing for a new installment.

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This is the second feature film for Norwegian director Lars Klevberg. He teams with first-time screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith to completely reinvent and modernize the Chucky origin story. Buddi dolls now do a lot more than just talk. These versions are high-tech Alexa-like companions who can connect to numerous other devices created and sold by the multinational Kaslan Corporation (the ‘tech is scary’ and ‘beware of big business’ messaging is pretty obvious).

Also gone is the goofy serial killer possession angle. Instead a disgruntled worker at a Vietnamese sweatshop removes a Buddi doll’s safety protocols in retaliation for being fired. The doll ships overseas and ends up in the hands of a retail clerk and single mother named Karen (Audrey Plaza). She gives the doll as an early birthday present to her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) who is having trouble adapting to their new neighborhood. He names it…well, you know.

Despite something clearly being off with Chucky (deviously voiced by a wonderful Mark Hamill), Andy grows attached to his new Buddi. Things start out great, but as Chucky processes and is influenced by Andy’s complex home life, lets just say the doll slowly becomes a menacing knife-wielding threat. And I do emphasize ‘slowly’ because it takes a while before any semblance of a horror thriller arrives.

In addition to its unexpectedly slow buildup, the film also suffers from an unfortunate identity crisis. I expected a “Child’s Play” reboot in 2019 would by necessity be a full-blown horror comedy. We get a few sparks of humor but far too often it takes itself way too seriously. And the uneven story treatment carries over to some of the characters.

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Take Plaza’s Karen. She starts off as a signature Audrey Plaza character full of snark and dry, sarcastic wit. But that’s quickly tossed aside and Karen becomes little more than a necessary plot device. And it’s amazing how little agency she has. Take how oblivious she is to her jerk of a boyfriend’s treatment of Andy. A character with some level of conflict would have been interesting. The film isn’t much into that.

“Child’s Play” tries to make several statements on our culture, technology, and (somewhat hypocritically) the influences of violent entertainment. While some of it lands pretty well, it’s hard to take any of it too seriously. So in a nutshell it isn’t serious enough. It isn’t funny enough. It isn’t self-aware enough. Worst of all, it isn’t the slightest bit scary. There is some occasional fun and a little bit of amusing nostalgia, but certainly not enough to carry the movie through to its end.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Cold War” (2018)

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In 2013 Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski released the brilliantly concise and thoroughly evocative “Ida”. It was a haunting movie filled with beauty and intrigue. Also it was the first Polish picture to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It took five years but we finally have his follow-up and it’s just as mysterious and tantalizing.

“Cold War” is a much different film than Pawlikowski’s previous effort but you’ll quickly recognize some of the same artistic choices that made “Ida” so visually arresting. Once again he teams with cinematographer Lukasz Zal who shoots in gorgeous black-and-white and uses the desaturated palette to convey the mood of a postwar Poland struggling under the weight of Communism. This time even more emphasis is put on the strategic use of shadows and lighting.

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The Warsaw-born Pawlikowski tells a story loosely based on the tempestuous and constantly intersecting romance of his own parents from whom the two lead characters take their names. Structurally it moves from point to point along the relationship timeline of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). Their earnest yet troubled romance serves as the film’s centerpiece.

The story opens in 1949 with Wiktor and his colleague Irena (played by the excellent and underused Agata Kulesza) visiting rural villages to find undiscovered singing talent for their state-sponsored folk music project. Those chosen are brought to a school to be trained for an upcoming tour. It’s here that Wiktor is drawn to young Zula. He sees something special in her and his curiosity quickly turns to captivation.

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Telling too much more would hurt the experience, but let’s just say their mutual attraction grows into a romance – passionate and sincere but troubled from the start. Pawlikowski skips across their timeline making stops in Warsaw, Paris, and Yugoslavia. Along the way we watch Wiktor and Zula separate, reunite, and then separate again all amid an ever-changing European post-war landscape (something else Pawlikowski and Zal capture with incredible clarity through their lens).

From early on you can sense that “Cold War” is a deeply personal story. It’s a love story that is both romantic and tragic. Two fine lead performances drive the central relationship which is filled with intense passion but also missed opportunities at every turn. At the same time Pawlikowski has several things to say about the time period and much of it is vividly told through his camera. That extra layer is what pushes “Cold War” into truly special territory.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Creed II”

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One of my biggest regrets of 2018 was missing “Creed II” in the theaters. The first film was a wonderful surprise. At first I didn’t buy into the idea of a “Rocky” spin-off focused on Apollo Creed’s son. It turns out I was selling short both Ryan Coogler as a writer-director and Michael B. Jordan as an actor. They actually had a good story to tell and it was one of my favorite films of 2015.

“Creed II” features most of the key elements that made its predecessor great. Ryan Coogler who wrote and directed the first film isn’t here for the sequel but the deeply grounded and character-centered approach he used definitely returns. Yes, it’s a boxing movie so there are certain sequences you know you’re going to get. But this is first and foremost a movie about its characters and the lives they live.

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As if we needed more proof, “Creed II” cements Michael B. Jordan as an all-out star. He returns as Adonis Creed, three years removed from the events of the first film and now on a streak of significant boxing wins that puts him in line for a title shot. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) still sits in his corner and his relationship with girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) has intensified.

Meanwhile in the Ukraine we see Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) training and handily winning a series of lopsided boxing matches. If that last name sounds familiar, it should. Viktor is the son of Ivan Drago (a returning Dolph Lundren) who killed Adonis’ father in the ring over thirty years earlier. Ivan then lost to Rocky earning the scorn of the entire Soviet government. See where this is going?

Adonis gets his title shot and wins the WBC World Heavyweight Championship. On top of the boxing world, he proposes to Bianca and the two contemplate leaving Philly for Los Angeles. The Dragos get word from an opportunistic promoter (Russell Hornsby) that Apollo Creed’s son is champion leading them to come to the States and issue a challenge to Adonis. Rocky wants no part of it which infuriates the bull-headed Adonis who sets out to fight Viktor Drago without his mentor in his corner. Gulp!

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“Creed II” is very much an underdog story in the vein of most other “Rocky” pictures. But as I mentioned it’s much more interested in what makes these characters tick. New director Steven Caple Jr. understands that and he never loses that focus. The script was co-written by Stallone and Juel Taylor who plant most things firmly in the real world. This adds real consequences to the boxing matches as well as deep personal conflicts. That is until the big final fight when several of the characters who were once deeply concerned weirdly toss that aside and get onboard without a hint of conflict.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of “Creed II” is that you don’t feel the absence of Ryan Coogler. That’s not a knock on Coogler, but high praise for Caple, Jr. It helps to have a stellar returning cast (I didn’t even mention Phylicia Rashad who is back as Adonis’ mother. She’s so good). It all makes for a truly satisfying sequel and a second installment to a spin-off franchise that I never expected to be this good.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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