REVIEW: “Resistance” (2020)

ResistposterIn a gut-churning prologue set in 1938 Nazi Germany a young Jewish girl named Elsbeth asks her loving parents a simple but weighty question, “Why do they hate us?” Her comforting father (Édgar Ramírez) tells her to not worry and that things will soon get better. Within seconds writer- director Jonathan Jakubowicz shatters that optimism and a child’s innocence is stripped away in a flash. It’s a short yet visceral opening to “Resistance”, the true story of an uncommon hero.

In Nuremberg, Germany, 1945, General George S. Patton (Ed Harris) taken the stage at the Kongresshalle, a former Nazi rallying grounds to address a large gathering of American troops. Through what is essentially a framing device, he shares with them the story of Marcel Marceau, an aspiring stage performer and mime. Later generations would best know Marceau for his silent character Bip the Clown (among other things). But as Patton begins his story we quickly learn that Marcel’s inspirational life’s journey began well before he became famous.

The film hops back to 1938, this time to a cabaret in Strasbourg, France. On a tiny corner stage and mostly unnoticed by the crowd, Marcel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) performs his mime routine inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. It’s what he dreams of doing, but he doesn’t get much support from his well-meaning father (Karl Markovics), a third generation kosher butcher who prefers his son to follow in the family’s footsteps.

But Marcel sees himself as “a serious actor“, spending his time working on his act rather than cutting meat or trying to win over Emma (Clémence Poésy), a young woman he wants to marry someday. She’s a part of a local activist group organized by Marcel’s cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig) to help smuggle Jewish orphans to safety. Marcel shows no interest in joining the efforts, selfishly declining Georges’ plea for help. “I’m no good with children” he weakly contends. Yet he reluctantly agrees and his entire perspective forever changes after seeing three truckloads of frightened children, among them young Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey) from the prologue.

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PHOTO: IFC Films

It’s here than Jakubowicz makes one of several smart choices. Marcel begins using mime to comfort the children, but never in a silly or mawkish way. In fact, it’s an essential yet pretty small part of the story. Jakubowicz wisely sticks to his timeline, making this more about wartime heroism than artistic expression. “Resistance” chronicles Marcel’s brave and often harrowing early life which unquestionable helped shape the renowned peacetime performer he would later become.

After Germany invades Poland, French border towns are ordered to evacuate. The entire population of Strasbourg (including Marcel’s family) head for southern France, leaving everything behind expecting to return soon. Of course their lives were never the same. In six short weeks Hitler’s Germany conquered Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and then much of France including Paris. Not long after, the rest of the country fell to Nazi rule.

The group lead the children to Limoges, hiding them with local families and churches. It’s the only instance in the movie where the time gap seems curious as the nearly 400-mile trek is passed over. Nonetheless the danger remains which inspires Marcel, his brother Alain (Félix Moati), Emma and her sister Mila (Vica Kerekes) to join the French Resistance. The four travel to Lyon which suffers under the brutal fist of SS officer Klaus Barbie known as “The Butcher of Lyon” (he’s played with disquieting menace by Matthias Schweighöfer). Barbie is instantly made into the movie’s chief villain. And while there is no evidence that Barbie and Marceau ever crossed paths, the Gestapo head’s barbaric presence in Lyon is well documented and several of his actions we see are pulled from true accounts.

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PHOTO: IFC Films

After facing Barbie’s brutality Marcel finds himself at a crossroads. Do you fight and die just to kill a few Nazis or is living and saving the lives of others the greatest form of resistance? For Marcel the answer is an easy one, setting up a tension-soaked final act which teaches us that that not every form of resistance came at the end of a gun.

All of Eisenberg’s normal acting ticks are put to good use. His Marcel is timid, slightly neurotic, even a little bratty when we first meet him. All things the actor can do in his sleep. But even when his character becomes a hero, he’s still fraught with uncertainty and insecurity. While his accent may not always be convincing, Eisenberg brings plenty of sincerity and emotion making this one of strongest performances. Poésy is even better, serving as much more than your standard love interest. In fact any hint of a romance is passed through fleeting looks or gentle smiles. We know it’s there but it’s never intended to be a major story point. This allows Poésy to extend her character and performance into several satisfying directions.

Keenly shot, deeply affecting, and historically valuable, “Resistance” brings to surface another largely unknown true story of courage and sacrifice set during the Holocaust. I say this often, but I’m glad filmmakers are still plowing this ground and unearthing these powerful stories which need to be told. Marcel Marceau would go on to become the world’s most famous mime artist. In 2001 he wrote “Destiny permitted me to live. This is why I have to bring hope to people who struggle in the world.” With “Resistance” Jonathan Jakubowicz opens ours eyes to the weight of that statement while shining a much deserved light on a truly remarkable life.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Rhythm Section” (2020)

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‘Tis the season for January new releases. Known as a veritable wasteland of movie projects which studios have no faith in, a January release is usually a bad sign for the film and the audience. Enter “The Rhythm Section”, a globe-trotting revenge thriller with some interesting names attached. Unfortunately it feels right at home among the usual January movie doldrums.

Revenge thrillers are a dime a dozen these days and finding one that can stamp its own identity is pretty rare. “The Rhythm Section” looked promising. A gritty female-led tale of vengeance featuring Blake Lively, Jude Law, and Sterling K. Brown sounds alright. But 30 minutes into it I was still looking for a spark, something to energize a movie that frankly never generates any real excitement or suspense.

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

“The Rhythm Section” comes from cinematographer turned director Reed Morano and from a screenplay written by Mark Burnell (adapting his own novel). In it Lively plays Stephanie Patrick, a former Oxford student with a bright future. But that life is gone following a plane crash that killed her entire family, a plane she too was supposed to be on. The tragedy sent her spiraling into a world of depression, prostitution and heroin addiction. We don’t see how she got there. Instead the first act spends most of its time showing her in various states of misery.

She’s contacted by a journalist named Proctor (Raza Jeffrey) who has information that the plane her family died on was actually blown out of the sky by a terrorist’s bomb. He identifies the bombmaker who was doing the bidding of an unidentified higher-up who ordered the bombing. Stephanie wants payback but going from street worker to avenging angel is no easy task.

Enter Boyd (Jude Law), a disgraced MI6 agent living off the grid in a remote part of Scotland. If you need quick lessons on how to become an assassin he’s the kind of hard-nosed guy you go see. After some tried-and-true, cliche training sequences Stephanie heads out, tracks down Sterling K. Brown who plays a pretty hilarious (unintentionally) CIA operative and information broker, and sets her sites on the terrorists responsible for her family’s death.

You have to give Lively a lot of credit. She really commits to her role, deglamorizing to the extreme and squeezing whatever emotion she can out of the character she’s given. Unfortunately her performance is undercut by a script that is painfully dull. You can see what it’s trying to be, but it never gets there and sadly Lively is the biggest causality. She deserves better. As for Law, he’s kinda fun but you can’t help but think he’s cashing a check or doing a favor.

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

As for the action, there is nothing to it that really sticks with you. The lone exception is an inspired scene involving a car chase where the camera sits in the passenger seat next to Lively. It plays like one continuous take with the camera looking out the front windshield, panning to Lively driving, looking out the back, and so on. It’s a relatively short scene but visually impressive. Everything else is pretty run-of-the-mill.

Part Bourne, part Bond but with none of the vigor or personality of either, “The Rhythm Section” has some good ideas but not enough original ones. And despite a determined Blake Lively performance, the bland low-energy script simply can’t match the film’s ambition. I really wanted to like this movie, but wading through the implausibility and monotony proved to be chore.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Richard Jewell”

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The real story of Richard Jewell is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Jewell was a security guard during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. While working an evening of concerts at Centennial Olympic Park he discovered a suspicious backpack containing a bomb. He was instrumental in moving people out of the area just before the bomb detonated.

Many lives were saved and Jewell was instantly heralded as a hero. But it all changed when the FBI suddenly made him their prime suspect despite having no evidence to charge him. Information was leaked to the media who unfairly presumed his guilt and spent weeks demonizing him in print and on television. Jewell was eventually exonerated but not before it all had taken a terrible toll.

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© Warner Brothers Pictures All Rights Reserved

Clint Eastwood directs the simple-titled “Richard Jewell” which follows this aspiring ‘law enforcement officer’ through the events that would alter his life forever. The film stars Paul Walter Hauser as the title character, a Michigan native who sports a pretty impressive Deep South accent. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray dig a little into Richard’s past but mainly focus on Olympic Park bombing, the FBI’s shady work to pin it on Richard, and the media’s aggressive rush to convict him through their reporting.

The film portrays Richard as a gentle and well-meaning guy. He’s shown to be naive and unassuming to a fault which FBI agent Tom Shaw (John Hamm) will later exploit regardless of the legality. We also see that Richard sometimes takes things too seriously (which costs him his job as a college campus cop). Hauser’s spot-on performance captures all of Jewell’s kindness but also his eccentricities which leads to him being perceived as sympathetic and at times pitiful.

Hamm’s Agent Shaw was on duty at Centennial Olympic Park when the bomb went off. Bitter that it happened on his watch, Shaw is selfishly motivated to pin it on the man being called a hero. He has a ‘mutually beneficial’ relationship with Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a cutthroat journalist with the Atlanta-Journal Constitution who is more interested in getting the scoop first than testing the truthfulness of it.

You kinda expect Hamm to be good considering he has done variations of this role several times before. But Wilde stands out the most, vividly portraying a character who is brash, tenacious and boiling over with confidence. She’s unspeakably devious but just as intelligent. Both of their characters are implicit in hounding Richard and starting the firestorm of negative and in some cases abusive reporting (one paper gives him the title “Bubba Bomber”).

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© Warner Brothers Pictures All Rights Reserved

This opens the narrative door for two other great supporting performances. Sam Rockwell is fantastic playing Richard’s attorney Watson Bryant. The two men first cross paths early in the movie and then reconnect after Watson agrees to defend Richard against the unfounded allegations. And Kathy Bates is a real scene-stealer playing Richard’s mother Bobi. It’s an earnest, grounded performance and it’s easy believing in her as a caring and supportive mom.

“Richard Jewell” moves at a surprisingly snappy pace despite taking a while to show any real emotional conviction. It does a good job establishing its characters, but much like the movie’s namesake, it’s easygoing when it comes to emotions and a little too absorbed in the details. But Eastwood finally gives us a much earned payoff in a strong final act where Hauser, Bates, and Rockwell really humanize the story. I just wish we didn’t have to wait so long get there.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

Denzel Day #9 : “Remember the Titans”

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‘Feel good’ movies can be a little tricky. Despite coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, these films almost always come with some degree of predictability. That’s why it’s imperative that their story be a good one and be told in a way that compels us even though we can usually see where they may be going.

“Remember the Titans” not only faces the ‘feel good’ challenge but it’s also a football movie which brings along its own set of predictable tropes. But director Boaz Yakin manages thanks to a steady dedication to his characters and a truly inspiring story set in the tinderbox of the racially divided South. It doesn’t hurt to have Denzel Washington as your lead – an actor who at that time had already shown an exceptional range and the ability to bring emotional depth to any character he played.

Will Patton And Denzel Washington In 'Remember The Titans'

In the Fall of 1971 the city of Alexandria, Virginia consolidated its high schools and formed T. C. Williams High School. It was the last step in fully integrating the city’s school system and was met with immediate pushback from many in the white community. African-American Herman Boone (Washington) is hired to coach the football team, a position many expected to be filled by Bill Yoast (Will Patton). This infuriates many of the white players who played under Yoast before the integration and their parents who expected him to coach their kids.

It’s not like Coach Boone is thrilled with the position he is thrust into. He had faced something similar earlier in his career and felt guilty for taking Yoast’s spot. But after sensing the enthusiasm and pressure from the black community he reluctantly agrees. And to help curb the boiling public outrage he asks an equally reluctant Yoast to stay on as an assistant coach. The racial tensions in the city are reflected on the team and even among coaches. But if Boone and Yoast can get on the same page, maybe they can not only bring the football team together but the townsfolk as well.

“Remember the Titans” is based on a true story which helps it through some of its more conventional moments. Most importantly it always remains character-driven whether it’s dealing directly on the football field or telling the story of two families (the Boones and the Yoasts) and how they’re both effected by the groundswell of racial enmity.

In many ways “Remember the Titans” is a straight-forward and at times by-the-books football movie. We get the team slowly coming together when no one thought it was possible. We get the player who turns his back on his teammates but sees the light in the nick of time. We get the key injury to a big player that inspires the team before the big game. At the same time it shrewdly weaves in several thought-provoking threads. Take the historical frankness in its depiction of the racial landscape during the early 70’s. Or in how it slyly shows the indoctrination of ignorance and hate particularly on our children.

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And of course there are the performances led by Denzel Washington. This is yet another role that he sinks himself into. It’s a fiercely authentic portrayal of Herman Boone that never feels like a caricature. Will Patton’s tempered, restrained performance does a good job of conveying a conflicted man bouncing back-and-forth between expectations and decency. And a 10-year-old Hayden Panettiere is a darling scene-stealer as Coach Yoast’s outspoken football savvy daughter.

It’s a shame that it would take something as trivial as football to break through the ugly wall of racism but it does make for an inspiring and still relevant story. Like most of these things dramatic liberties were taken. Not all of the timelines match up and not every character is in-sync with their real inspiration. But the beating heart of the story is still powerful and pertinent which makes this film not only highly watchable entertainment but a thought-provoking (and hopefully in some ways enlightening) crowdpleaser.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Rambo: Last Blood”

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What a crazy 37 years it has been for Sylvester Stallone’s John J. Rambo. In 1982 he battled PTSD and a backwoods sheriff in upstate Washington. In 1985 he went back to Vietnam at the behest of crooked Washington bureaucrats. In 1988 he traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and save a friend. In 2008 he led a group of mercenaries into war-torn Burma to rescue a Christian missionaries. He’s done a lot, seen a lot, killed a lot.

And just when you thought Rambo’s cinematic tour of duty was done, the 73-year-old Stallone dusts off the character for one final fight (at least that’s what the title implies). “Rambo: Last Blood” doesn’t send the war-scarred vet too a far from home. This time the story has him bouncing back and forth between his dusty ranch in Arizona and Mexico.

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Eleven years after the events of the not-so-great 2008 film Rambo has found a semblance of peace on his family’s old home place. He lives there with his housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) and her granddaughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal) who he has raised as his own daughter. But Rambo and happiness have never went together so you know his retirement from one-man armying is doomed from the start.

When Gabriela learns the whereabouts of her birth father in Mexico, she goes against Rambo’s wishes and sneaks south of the border to find him. In the most predictable of turns she is snatched up by human traffickers working for a local drug cartel. To no surprise Rambo doesn’t take it sitting down. He heads to Mexico to rescue Gabriela stoking a war with the cartel in the process.

Full disclosure, I’m a big fan of the first three Rambo movies. They were silly, bombastic, and a ton of fun. They were full of energy, big action, and really driven performances from Stallone. The forth film came some twenty years after “Rambo III” and went in a grittier, gorier, and more joyless direction. “Last Blood” falls more in line with the last film instead of the original three. It’s darker, bloodier, and Stallone looks completely worn out.

To be fair, Rambo is supposed to be worn out considering the life he has lived. We see a little of that during an early and brief PTSD sequence that is unfortunately dropped and never revisited. That’s a story thread I wish had been explored. But Sly’s performance itself seems drained of all energy and emotion. He (not just his character) looks tired. Admittedly it’s still good to see him back in the role even if he lacks the zest you expect.

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The most noticeable thing about “Last Blood” is how its story really doesn’t resemble anything else from the franchise. It particularly lacks the big action moments the others films are known for. Yes there are a few sudden bursts of graphic violence but nothing that will stick with you. And it’s especially true for the final ten minutes which is this frantic blood-soaked collage of grisly kills that’s over in a snap. Little buildup, extremely rushed, and it ends with this absurdly gruesome moment that’s completely out of sync with the better films of the franchise.

Surprisingly I liked the setup of “Last Blood” more than the payoff. The movie deals with some pretty heavy subject matter and despite not giving it the emotional weight or depth it deserves, it’s still pretty effective table-setting. Yes, the predictable cries of xenophobia are out there which some may find cathartic in today’s politically-charged climate. But a more level-headed look at the film finds its problems lie elsewhere. And unfortunately there are plenty of them.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Rust Creek” (2019)

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Darned GPS! You just can’t trust those things. That’s one of the earliest takeaways from “Rust Creek”, a new survival picture which right out of the gate feels like something we’ve seen several times before. But it doesn’t take long to see there is a lot more to this little independent gem than meets the eye.

Turns out “Rust Creek” is a delightfully harrowing thriller from director Jen McGowan. She along with screenwriter Julie Lipson take a fairly well known basic premise and inject it with a surprisingly restrained tone and genuine human empathy. With a fantastic use of character and setting, McGowan creates a tense atmosphere full of dread and suspense.

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Hermione Corfield plays Sawyer, a college student who decides to skip Thanksgiving with her family for a job interview in Washington DC. Along the way her GPS reroutes her around road construction, miles down a rural highway, and deep into the Kentucky hills. When she stops to get her bearings two local yokels (Micah Hauptman and Daniel R. Hill) pull up, a bit concerned about her presence in ‘them thar hills’. A scrap ensues leading Sawyer running through the cold woods with the bumpkins on her trail.

So far it sounds like fairly familiar territory, but McGowen keeps it from being too conventional. For instance Sawyer is instantly portrayed as a strong young woman with plenty of fight in her. That’s always welcomed but you can ride it too far. Instead we see that (like most of us) her strength has limits. For instance she’s no deep-woods survivalist. Soon nature and the elements take their toll both physically and psychologically. Still she is no ‘damsel in distress’. Even when there is the appearance of submission to her situation you can see the wheels turning in her head.

Corfield is a big reason it works so well. After memorable bit parts in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” this is the first leading role for the 25-year-old English actress. She’s more than able to handle the demands of the part which asks her to carry most of the load. Much of the film’s first half sees her leaning on physicality and expression while the second half gives her more dialogue to work with.

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This is also where the film works the hardest to defy traditional stereotypes. Sawyer is unknowingly rescued by a meth cooker named Lowell (Jay Paulson). This unexpected dynamic leads to some interesting perspectives on rural poverty, the meth epidemic, and several other social issues. A local sheriff (Sean O’Bryan), who is set in his backwoods ways of doing things, adds yet another wrinkle to Sawyer’s situation.

At a key point “Rust Creek” surprisingly pivots from its seemingly conventional survival-thriller mold to a more dialogue-driven character exploration. It can be a slow boil but most importantly it never loses its suspense. McGowen makes sure her film offers us constant reminders of the looming dangers to Sawyer making it easy to invest in her and her plight. That’s a mark of a good thriller.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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