REVIEW: “Overlord”

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One of the coolest things about the J.J. Abrams produced “Overlord” is that with the slightest of tweaks it could work as a gritty and visceral World War II Picture or a fun old-school horror gorefest. It settles on being a crazy genre mashup full of far more surprises than you would ever expect.

The film begins with a high-powered opening sequence set in the night skies over France. It’s the evening before the D-Day invasion and a paratrooper squad is set to drop behind enemy lines to destroy a German radio jamming tower strategically placed atop an old village church. Director Julius Avery’s camera hones in on Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) whose wringing hands, bouncing knee, and sweat-soaked forehead give away his  nervousness.

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German AA guns begin pounding the skies and bullets rip through the hull of the plane killing many of the young troops. Boyce is pushed out into the dark war-torn sky and parachutes to the Nazi-occupied countryside just south of the village. This entire sequence is exhilarating and chaotic, full of striking visual touches and some truly intense sound design. It definitely gets things off on the right foot.

On the ground Boyce is reunited with the small handful of soldiers who survived the drop. Among them is the hard-nosed Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) and the obnoxious chatterbox Private Tibbet (John Magaro). They cross paths with a French Resistance fighter named Chloe (a very good Mathilde Ollivier) who reluctantly agrees to sneak them into the village where they’ll put together a game plan to take out the tower.

So far everything could pass for a thrilling WW2 film in the vein of “Saving Private Ryan”. But oh how things change when we discover what’s going on in and underneath the church. This will only speak to gamers, but “Overlord” becomes something that would be right at home in the “Wolfenstein” video game universe. I’ll let you discover it for yourself but let’s just say the horror elements you see in the trailer are only the tip of the iceberg. The film has much crazier (and gorier) things up its cinematic sleeve.

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“Overlord” is best taken as straight-forward, unbridled entertainment. It doesn’t shoot for much more than that. We see this most in its handling of the characters which we learn practically nothing about. It’s not particularly necessary for the story, but it is one thing that could have given the movie a little more depth. Still the characters manage to have their own unique contributions to the story. For example Boyce serves is the film’s conscience. Ford is the grit. Chloe is the heart. Tibbet is the humor.

While the trailers scream horror, “Overlord” packs just as much period war-time action and suspense. In fact, one of the most welcoming things is how deliberate Avery and co-writers Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith are with unleashing the horror elements. When they do come it changes the movie significantly and that’s not a bad thing. I gotta say I enjoyed the second half’s blood-soaked nuttiness and its commitment to seeing its crazy concept through to the finish line.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Operation Finale” (2018)

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Otto Adolf Eichmann was a high-ranking Nazi SS officer and one of the key architects of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Decorated and revered among the Nazi hierarchy, Eichmann’s fingerprints were all over the Holocaust. He would organize and oversee the mass deportation of Jewish communities to extermination camps across Eastern Europe during World War II. The hunt and subsequent capture of Eichmann is a fascinating story to behold.

After World War II Adolf Eichmann escaped custody and hid throughout Europe before settling in Buenos Aires. “Operation Finale” from director Chris Weitz spotlights the Israeli intelligence team who located Eichmann and were tasked with bringing him back to Jerusalem to stand trial before the nation.

Oscar Isaac stars as Peter Malkin, a secret agent from the more aggressive wing of the Mossad. In 1960 the intelligence agency initially ignores a lead claiming Eichmann had been spotted in Argentina. But fearing public outcry, Malkin and his team are sent to South America to covertly extract Eichmann under the noses of an unhelpful local government and a rising Nazi sentiment. Ben Kingsley plays the enigmatic Eichmann, a queasy mixture of family man and outright monster.

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First time screenwriter Matthew Orton covers a lot of ground in the film’s two-hour running time. A good chunk is spent peeling back the layers of Eichmann and revealing an unexpected touch of humanity. It’s a tough juggling act particularly for Kingsley who is both unsettling and convincing. His portrayal hides Eichmann’s heinous beliefs behind a veil of good manners and fatherly devotion giving form to what historian Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil”.

Then you have the Jewish intelligence team whose pain-driven impulses for revenge routinely clash with their sense of duty. It is especially true for Peter who still finds himself haunted by flashbacks of the German atrocities. This adds another level of stress to the already demanding mission. Some good performances fill out the rest of the team – Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, and the always good French actress Mélanie Laurent. She plays a doctor and Peter’s former love interest although their relationship isn’t given a lot of detail.

An integral side story features one of my favorite young actresses Haley Lu Richardson (“Columbus”, “The Edge of Seventeen”). She plays Sylvia, the daughter of Lothar Hermann (Peter Strauss) who secretly feeds information to the Israelis regarding Eichmann’s whereabouts. But her budding relationship with Eichmann’s Nazi-sympathizing son (Joe Alwyn) puts her in a precarious position. It’s an interesting story angle but unfortunately Richardson’s character gets lost in the third act as the film crunches the timeline and focuses more on the extraction.

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The film’s slow boil may push away those looking for a snappier or more action-oriented thriller. But I appreciated its deliberate pacing and attention to character. As I said about Richardson, not everyone gets the fullest treatment, but there are some fabulous character-driven moments specifically between Isaac and Kingsley. They offer some great exchanges amid two top form performances.

Producers Fred Berger and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones have stated that there is far more truth to their story than dramatic license. That’s one reason you won’t find “Operation Finale” leaning too heavily on routine tropes and gimmicks to amp up the tension. They want it to come from a more authentic place. That gives this film a different feel – patient, even methodical to a point. It wouldn’t appear to be the easiest sell, but a strong backing from MGM Studios ensured its production.

It has been said that as the end of the war drew close Eichmann declared he could “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” It’s that deep-seated wickedness and unspeakable callousness mixed with their own personal losses that drove the Mossad throughout this incredible mission. “Operation Finale” shines a light on their efforts and does so with reverence, patience and with the help of one stellar cast.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Only the Brave”

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If you aren’t familiar with the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots but plan on seeing “Only the Brave”, do yourself a favor and don’t read up on their story before seeing the movie. It’s worth it just to experience the fullness of the emotional gut punch this film packs. I had not heard of  these brave men who fought wildfires on the frontlines. I’m certain that’s why this movie provoked such a powerful response from me.

“Only the Brave” could have been several things under that familiar guise of “based on a true story”. It could have been some big studio action movie with more CGI than human element. It could have been a cliché-riddled buddy survival-thriller that Hollywood has produced by the dozens. To be honest I was expecting a bit of all that. What I got was a movie far more interested in its characters than I expected it to be. It isn’t perfect, but when focused on the right stuff (which is more often than not) it reveals a depth that will surprise a lot of people (including me).

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Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) heads a team of firefighters in Prescott, Arizona. They are a top-notch group who find themselves constantly brushed aside by higher ranked elites. Sick of the federal bureaucracy and lack of progress for his crew, Eric seeks the help of mentor and former firefighter Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges). Because of Duane’s pull a portion of the film deals with the team earning their elite certification and becoming the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The reason this is even the slightest bit interesting is because of the characters. The writing team of Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer put the bulk of their focus on two of the firefighters, Brolin’s Eric and Brendan “Donut” McDonough played by a very convincing Miles Teller. Donut is a stoner looking to turn his life around following the birth of his daughter. Eric sees him as a kindred spirit of sorts hinting at some baggage looming from his past. Team-wise there is some strong supporting work James Badge Dale who plays Eric’s reliable second-in-command and Taylor Kitsch, a bit of a flake but a good-hearted one and always dependable in the field. The other firemen aren’t given much attention yet they still feel integral and important.

A lot of time is given to the team chemistry both in the field and away from it. There are plenty of good scenes that show the camaraderie of this tight-knit unit. At the same time the writers occasionally overdo it with some of their banter which I think is meant to be stereotypical “guy talk”. At times it gets a bit silly and perhaps even offensive (depending on your perspective).

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But we really see these characters open up in the scenes where these men step away from their firefighting. Eric’s story is especially compelling because we get Jennifer Connelly who is excellent playing his wife Amanda. She spends more time with the horses she nurses back to health than her husband who is always away on duty. Over time we begin to sense the stress it has on their relationship. Connelly shrewdly maneuvers through Amanda’s slowly shifting emotions never hitting a false note. She’s so good in the scenes she is given and has a great chemistry with Brolin.

All of this relationship building and character development fuels the final act which, despite some predictable narrative setup, has a profound dramatic kick. Director Joseph Kosinski needs no manipulation or gimmickry because by this point his characters are in a good place and he has the emotional heft of the true events to carry his ending. And by the end I not only knew about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but I had an intense respect for them and their loved ones. 

VERDICT – 

REVIEW: “The Other Woman”

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I suppose there was a chance, albeit a small chance, that “The Other Woman” could be a funny and spirited revenge movie for women. The concept, while admittedly dopey and trite, could be entertaining if placed in smart and creative hands. Well let me say not one single smart or creative hand touched any part this film. “The Other Woman” is unquestionably one of the most brainless and insipid attempts at comedy I have seen in a while. Not only is it offensive to intelligent women everywhere, it’s also offensive to any halfway discerning movie fan.

I’m not certain what screenwriter Melissa Stack is going for, but she definitely didn’t hit her mark. The film isn’t remotely funny. There isn’t an ounce of originality in the attempted humor. The characters are obnoxious, shallow, and brain-dead. I didn’t like anyone in this movie nor did I care about their situations. Basically the film trashes every bit of its women’s empowerment and independence potential.

Cameron Diaz gives yet another silly performance playing a New York lawyer named Carly. She has fallen for suave and debonair guy named Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Things look good for them until she finds out he is married to the teeth-grindingly annoying Kate (Leslie Mann). The two develop an unusual friendship which only strengthens when they find out that Mark is also cheating with a third woman, an air-headed supermodel named Amber (Kate Upton). The three scorned ladies join forces to enact the ultimate revenge on the two-timing (or is it three-timing) Mark?

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Stark and director Nick Cassavetes give us an annoying and inept mess of a movie. It doesn’t have an original thought or an shred of ambition. It seems to be copying things we’ve seen in other films. It’s so poorly made from its idiotic fecal jokes to its pretentious use of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”. And the performances don’t help. Bad performances from Cameron Diaz have become commonplace and it’s no different here. Mann is probably the most annoying of the cast and that’s saying something. Upton, well she is no actress and she makes that crystal clear.

I read that “The Other Woman” pulled in $200 million at the box office. I can’t tell you how perplexing that is. We all sometimes like a silly, dumb movie as long as it doesn’t insult us and it offers some semblance of filmmaking intelligence. “The Other Woman” has none of that yet it raked in a ton of money. I would love to watch a good comedy featuring the empowerment of women at the expense of a slimy disgraceful guy. “The Other Woman” is certainly not it.

VERDICT – 1 STAR

REVIEW: “Only Lovers Left Alive”

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Several years ago vampires became all the rage in modern pop culture. “Twilight” made millions from novels and movies. “True Blood” was a hugely popular television series. And while I can’t say many flattering things about the quality of these properties, fans could get their vampire entertainment fix almost anywhere. Now, as the vampire craze appears to be fading, writer and director Jim Jarmusch gives us a vampire tale that is boldly unique and intelligently metaphoric. It would also send Twilight fans running for the exits.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” could be described as a mood piece. Like other Jarmusch films, this is more centered around developing characters than developing plot and your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on how much you enjoy being with these people. As you can guess the two main characters are vampires, but part of the film’s genius is how it uses vampire concepts while stiff-arming the usual tropes and gimmicks. In fact it seems like calling it a ‘vampire movie’ is actually doing it a huge disservice.

At the core of the film lies the love story of a centuries old vampiric couple. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a recluse living in an old two-story Victorian on the abandoned outskirts of Detroit. He surrounds himself with out-of-date electronic gadgets and his music. His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier, Morocco where she spends most of her time enjoying books and literature. The two are very different. Adam has grown forlorn and sour due to the current state of the world. Eve is more playful and optimistic, choosing to embrace hope and happiness. Yet despite these differences the two soulmates deeply love each other.

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Sensing Adam’s depression Eve travels to Detroit where the two are reunited. From there the film opens up the characters and their relationship by simply following along with them. We listen to their conversations which range from scientific theory to makes and models of classic guitars. We listen to Adam lament the death of creativity at the hands of humans (who the couple call zombies). We listen to Eve remind him of the great artists and innovators they have known through the centuries. These are fascinating individuals who have a number of fascinating discussions, but they all aim to serve the movie’s greater points.

In many ways “Only Lovers Left Alive” is an indictment of humanity, or at the very least a call for introspection. We hear how humanity’s appreciation for the arts has declined. In fact, in what may be Jarmusch’s jab at modern moviemaking, we hear Los Angeles refered to as “zombie central”. We see how humanity has destroyed what it has created as evident by the hollow and empty Detroit landscapes. We learn about humanity’s destruction of the environment particularly through a couple of references to the scarcity of clean water. Humanity has even destroyed themselves. Vampires are forced to seek alternate methods of acquiring blood because humans have poisoned their own. None of these things ever get to the point of being preachy. Instead they are thoughtful story components that are clever and thought-provoking.

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The film also has a smart sense of humor which shows itself most when the vampires are relating to the past. For example Eve reminding Adam of his time spent playing chess with Lord Byron or sharing creative ideas with composer Franz Schubert. Then there are several gags tied to John Hurt’s character. He plays Eve’s dear friend and fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe – yes, the 16th century playwright. Some fun is had with the conspiracy theory that he wrote many important pieces of literature under the assumed name of William Shakespeare.

It also helps that Jarmusch cast the two best possible people for the parts of Adam and Eve. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are so intensely convincing both in their intelligent coolness and blanched physical appearances. You never doubt them as connoisseurs of fine art and music, and you never doubt their vampire status. They are two of the most compelling and strangely attractive characters I’ve seen this year. I loved spending time with them.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” can be called a vampire movie, but in reality it bucks nearly every common vampire trend. It’s a slick, stylish, and moody character piece that doesn’t shy away from asking good questions and prodding reflection. It’s also great fun watching a true independent director like Jarmusch work with top talents like Hiddleston and Swinton. This certainly won’t be up everyone’s alley, but I found it to be mesmerizing entertainment and a refreshing jolt to the 2014 movie year.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Only God Forgives”

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I’m one of the few people who didn’t fall in love with the film “Drive”. Director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling garnered a ton of critical praise for their 2011 crime drama. While I liked the movie, overall I felt it was lightweight with very little underneath its stylized surface. Well let me say “Drive” has nothing on Refn and Gosling’s latest collaboration “Only God Forgives”. This film takes all of “Drive’s” missteps and amplifies them x10. Even worse, it doesn’t have a strong Albert Brooks-like performances to save it from its hollow and lifeless end result.

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THE EVER-PRESENT STARE…

The film is set in Bangkok where Gosling’s character Julian runs a kickboxing promotion which is a front for a drug dealing operation he runs with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). But Julian’s main job is staring. That’s all he does for 99% of the movie. Much like in “Drive”, Gosling gives another bland, poker-faced performance that never shows a hint of emotion. It’s frustratingly cold and dry – something Refn clearly has a fondness for. For me it grows old and it doesn’t add an ounce of depth to the character. Get used to them because Gosling’s eye-rolling blank stares and emotionless demeanor are ever-present regardless of the situation.

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Get used to this stare from Gosling. It never goes away.

Not to be outdone, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the corrupt police Lieutenant Chang who has Billy killed after he rapes and murders a woman. Chang is brutal, has a god-complex, slow walks like a zombie in a trance, and has a weird fascination with singing in nightclubs. Sounds like a well-rounded chap doesn’t he? I know Refn was shooting for some unique stylistic approach to the Chang character but quite honestly I started laughing whenever he would show up. He is in a constant state of slow motion and he has this one single expression throughout the film. He comes across as a stiff cardboard cutout that will occasionally commit acts of graphic violence.

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See? Still staring.

And speaking of violence, there is a lot of it in “Only God Forgives”. The movie becomes a story of revenge one-upmanship especially when Julian’s wacko mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up to avenge her first born. Thomas is a fine actress but she gets mauled by this lurid over-the-top character she plays. Her men kill one of Chang’s men then he kills one of hers in some gruesome fashion. Rinse and repeat. Refn splatters blood on walls, sprays blood out of gaping wounds, makes us watch an unsettling torture scene, etc. etc. etc. I’m not one that is automatically put off by scenes of graphic violence but none of these felt as if they served a purpose. I figure Refn had something he was trying to say but it never resonated with me.

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Seen this look before? Yep, it’s the stare…

While Refn may not like strong narratives, deeper characters, or good dialogue he certainly loves mood lighting, long hallways, and gaudy wallpaper. We get a ton of that stuff in “Only God Forgives”. It’s the ultimate example of style over substance. I found the whole exercise to be a pretentious and self-aware mess. I will say that Refn does show hints of brilliance when it comes to framing shots. He also can build tension in a scene when he is able to restrain himself. But those attributes can’t save this film from its dullness and overindulgence. Some will see it as a beautiful piece of stylistic cinema. Personally, I see it quite differently.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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By the way, still staring…