REVIEW: “The 12th Man” (2018)

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Some brief opening text lays out the setting for director Harald Zwart’s astounding “The 12th Man”. Nazi Germany occupied Norway on April 9, 1940. Three years later in Scotland British forces trained Norwegian soldiers to carry out sabotage missions in their homeland. On March 24, 1943 twelve Norwegian resistance fighters were sent to target German airfields in Operation Martin Red. Only one would come back alive.

This Norwegian historical thriller is based on the extraordinary true story of Jan Baalsrud, the lone survivor of that doomed operation. The film is based on a biography by Tore Haug and Astrid Karlsen Scott. It’s not the first movie based on a book of Baalsrud’s life. The 1957 drama “Nine Lives” received an Oscar nomination and remains a highly regarded picture.

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The grueling role of Baalsrud is played by Thomas Gullestad. Zwart starts quickly with Baalsrud and his team crawling out of the icy arctic waters onto the northern shores of Norway amid a hail of bullets. We learn that a costly mistake blew their cover and a German vessel attacks as they approach the mainland. Forced to scuttle their shot-up fishing boat, the twelve struggle ashore where German troops await them. Eleven are captured, Baalsrud escapes.

One of the first things I noticed was Zwart and cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen’s striking perspectives. Their camera placements and the fluidity of its movements offer one penetrating visual after another. Then you have the shots of the stunning Norwegian landscapes which in context are both beautiful and ominous. These images add a menacing dimension as the wounded and battered Baalsrud trudges through the frigid snow and ice.

“The 12th Man” spotlights Jan Baalsrud’s resilience as he makes his way towards neutral Sweden’s border, fighting treacherous terrain, excruciating cold and the doggedly determined Gestapo. But as he slowly succumbs to snowblindness, hypothermia, and gangrene the true crux of the story comes into focus. The film is just as much about the people he meets throughout his harrowing journey. Jan’s strength and heroism is matched, often exceeded, only by the Norwegian patriots helping him at every step – civilians routinely risking their lives to save his. In many ways they form the emotional core of the movie.

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Equally fascinating is when the movie shifts focus to that of a Gestapo officer named Kurt Stage (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers). No one has ever escaped Stage’s pursuit and he takes Baalsrud’s flight personally. He persistently hunts Jan rejecting the skepticism and needling of an ambitious fellow officer (Martin Kiefer). Myers offers a charismatic antagonist pushed more by ego and obsession than duty.

Some may say the film’s biggest surprise is in Harald Zwart’s direction. Perhaps known more for his misfires (“Agent Cody Banks”, “The Pink Panther 2”, “The Karate Kid” remake), but don’t let that dissuade you for a second. His portrayal of this unbelievable true story is riveting both visually and narratively. Whether he is capturing Jan Baalsrud’s intense and sometimes brutal attempts at survival or creating genuine moments of levity with the men and women risking everything to aid him. It makes for truly inspirational cinema.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Tomb Raider”

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As a younger video game enthusiast I remember being excited at the news of “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”, a 2001 movie based on the “Tomb Raider” video game franchise. It seemed ripe for the big screen with potential to be an Indiana Jones styled action-adventure. While it certainly couldn’t hold a candle to the three true Indy pictures, it was a fun and successful adaptation. A sequel followed – not quite as good and not quite as successful.

The video game series started in 1996 and over the years has seen several sequels, remakes, and spin-offs. The most recent reboot was in 2013. The game from developer Crystal Dynamics was critically acclaimed and wildly successful. It would become the highest grossing game in the franchise. Players responded to the grittier tone and human element that was sometimes overlooked in past games.

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Now the movie series returns, freshly rebooted and based on the most recent incarnation of the “Tomb Raider” games. And like its inspiration, it seeks to be grittier and more focused on giving us a more human Lara Croft. For the most part the movie succeeds.

The first smart decision was casting Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander. She gives us a Lara who is considerably more grounded than Angelina Jolie’s version from the previous films. Vikander’s portrayal is anchored by heartbreak, vulnerability and uncertainty. She isn’t a swashbuckling tomb-rainding buttkicker by nature or desire. The story frames her as a heartbroken young woman at a loss following the disappearance of her father (played by Dominic West) some seven years earlier.

But Lara is also full of determination and bravery. An unexpected clue leads her to her father’s secret study at the family’s now abandoned estate. There she discovers her father last set off for a mysterious remote island outside of Hong Kong. Through a ‘if you’re watching this I must be dead’ recording he commands Lara to destroy all of his research regarding the island. Instead she uses it to find the location and heads there in hopes of discovering what happened to him.

This opens the rather obvious door to Lara’s adventure. She runs into Walton Goggins who plays Mathias Vogel, the film’s chief antagonist. Turns out he heads an expedition on the island to find the same ancient tomb Lara’s father was seeking. Goggins is an unexpectedly fun choice. He brings a subtle (and slightly humorous) wide-eyed madness to his character who is a bit stir-crazy from his years on the island. For Lara it becomes a journey of revelation and self-discovery as she finds herself at odds with Vogel and his band of mercenaries. Oh, and of course there is also the tomb and the potentially devastating power it may hold.

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Director Roar Uthaug’s last film was the excellent 2015 Norwegian disaster picture “The Wave”. Here he is given a much different canvas but the sharp camera eye from his previous movie remains. The action scenes are shot with energy and clarity. No annoying rapid-fire quick cuts or shaky hand-held approach. He also wisely stops at certain points and sets his camera on Vikander allowing her to flesh out pieces of her character through her performance. That may sound a bit obvious, but far too often directors don’t give good performers that room. And again, Vikander is spot-on.

Does “Tomb Raider” break new ground or change the movie landscape? Not hardly. But is that a prerequisite for every film? Absolutely not. Will it be pigeonholed as just another video game movie? I think we’ve already seen some of that. But when you toss aside any preconceived notions or sky-high expectations, what you get is a fun and often times thrilling action-adventure with a strong, believable female protagonist . It’s a nice new foundation for a franchise. Unfortunately due to some iffy box office numbers that may not happen. What a shame.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

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Playwright turned screenwriter Martin McDonagh is three movies into his feature film career – “In Bruges”, “Seven Psychopaths” and his latest “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. While each film has their differences they also also have their similarities. All three are black comedy crime pictures and each prominently feature McDonagh’s brash writing style. You can decide whether that last part is a good thing or not.

McDonagh’s inspiration for “Three Billboards” came as he was driving in southeastern United States and noticed some billboards speaking to an unsolved crime. He began filling in his own elements to the story and “Three Billboards” was born. As he began penning the script two characters were written with specific performers in mind. The lead character of Mildred was written for Frances McDormand and key supporting character Dixon was written for Sam Rockwell.

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The story begins seven years after the brutal rape and murder of a teenaged girl around Ebbing, Missouri. The girl’s mother Mildred (McDormand), angered by the sheriff department’s lack of progress on the case, rents three abandoned billboards just outside of town calling out the local authorities. The billboards read “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests?” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Mildred’s billboards spark the ire of the townsfolk including Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), his dense and racist deputy Dixon (Rockwell), and even her depressed son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). But Mildred (a fitting reflection of McDonagh’s abrasive writing style) pushes forward which leads to a series of conflicts that make up a bulk of McDonagh’s problematic story.

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“Three Billboards” is such a mixed bag. McDonagh wildly swings from absurdly goofy to deeply emotional with no real gauge for tone. A scene of oddball humor can shift to a scene of startling violence on a whim. Often the characters are the biggest victims. One minute a man is brutally beating another man and punching a woman in the face. Only a few scenes later we are asked to buy into his moral transformation. Even Mildred suffers from McDonagh’s erratic treatment. She’s an inspirational crusader and a sympathetic mother. She’s also a verbally abusive, dysfunctional parent and can sometimes be needlessly hateful and vile. McDormand goes all in and her performance is solid, but her character (like most in the film) is all over the map.

Funny enough the movie is its most effective when it turns down the volume and focuses on the quieter dramatic moments. Many of these involve Woody Harrelson, an actor often known for big and showy. His Sheriff Willoughby is probably the film’s most tempered character but he’s not immune to McDonagh’s occasional jarring dialogue. And it seems we are meant to be at least a little sympathetic towards him, but to do so the movie ignores some gaping moral holes and expects us to do the same. Sorry, I can’t.

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Several other things keep “Three Billboards” from reaching the potential it teases. There’s McDonagh’s weird vision of small town America. He nails how the effects of a horrible tragedy can ripple through a rural tight-knit community. And visually the North Carolina location is a nice stand-in for the fictional town of Ebbing. But his wonky cast consists of racists, sexists, bigots, abusers, child molesters, and several other offensive classes of miscreants. Is this his rural perception? I’ll take a Coen brother’s version over this one any day.

And then you have McDonagh’s insistence on being blatantly and often pointlessly vulgar and crass. I get that it’s his thing, but forcing it into the bulk of the dialogue becomes annoying and distracting. I have no problem with a writer bringing their own style and sensibility, but it’s never a good thing when you can feel the writer constantly impressing himself on his material. Mix that with the seismic tonal shifts, uneven and often incomprehensible characters, and an overbearing desire to be as un-PC as possible regardless of how it effects the story. The result is a frustrating movie built on a good idea and featuring some strong performances yet undermined by problems too big to dismiss. Ultimately it’s a film that acts like it has something to say, but you quickly learn it’s little more than an empty hull. And for a movie about a mother seeking justice, it’s certainly has little to offer.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Thor: Ragnarok”

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Marvel Studios seems so have found a soft spot with many critics. Unlike their DC competition, Marvel movies are generally well received by critics who (as I gabbed about in my “Justice League” review) appreciate the MCU’s willingness to be a bit more lighthearted and poke fun at itself. Never has that been more true than with “Thor: Ragnarok”.

With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 92% and over $820 million in the box office bank (so far), Thor’s third solo film and seventeenth installment in Marvel’s cinematic universe has been yet another critical and commercial success. But what made is such a treat for many critics is part of what held me back.

Easily the most intriguing thing about “Thor: Ragnarok” was the choice of director. Taika Waititi has made two of my favorite straight comedies of the past several years. “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” showcased Waititi’s hyper-quirky brand of humor. Handing him the reins of a Marvel franchise film was guaranteeing something different.

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The story begins with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) held captive by the flaming demon Surtur. Thor learns that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has left his throne and Surtur plans to fulfill the Ragnarok prophecy and destroy Asgard. The God of Thunder will have none of that. Waititi wastes no time showing his comic intentions. This quick opening sequence summarizes the balance the entire film wants to maintain – wacky humor and superhero action.

For the remainder of the first act the story hurriedly hops from one plot point to the next. Thinking he has prevented Ragnarok, Thor returns to Asgard and soon learns the true threat to the realm is none other than Cate Blanchett. She plays Hela, the Goddess of Death and Odom’s long-lost firstborn who returns to Asgard to take the throne and wake her army of the dead. Her intent is the same as most MCU baddies – power, world domination, the usual. But Blanchett is wickedly fun, a bit dry at times but a hoot.

Hela wins round one and Thor finds himself stranded on a trashy planet ran by Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster. No one else in the film can match Goldblum whose performance is both bizarre and hysterical. Waititi urged Goldblum to improvise and the actor runs with it without the slightest restraint. I can see some audience members bewildered by what he’s doing. I found him to be an absolute scene stealer.

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Adding to the fun is the return of the mischievous Loki (Tom Hiddleston). We also get an overly chatty Hulk played partly by Mark Ruffalo and partly by a lot of green CGI. Idris Elba also returns as Heimdall, Asgard’s guardian sentry. The biggest new addition is Tessa Thompson who plays a hard-as-nails bounty hunter with a complicated past. Thompson adds plenty of energy even though she occasionally overplays the hard-drinking scoundrel type.

Waititi and company put together a lot of big action, but the film plays more as a comedy which means plenty of funny moments. But his treatment of Thor clashes with the past Marvel movies. From his first film Thor has been a bit of a lug. “Ragnarok” portrays him as more of a wisecracking dimwit. There are scenes where he steps outside of that box and reminds us of why he’s one of Marvel’s powerhouses. But after this movie it will be hard for some to see him as much more than a goof. The same could be said with Hulk. The film makes some weird moves with him and it will be interesting to see how it effects the character going forward.

Those not interested in continuity or source material won’t have any problems with “Thor: Ragnarok”. That’s probably the best way to approach it. For me, despite having some truly great aspects, something felt off. I can’t deny the film’s charm and there are some genuinely funny scenes. By no means is it a difficult watch. But I find its skittish first act and some questionable character handling is still gnawing at me.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Train to Busan”

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The zombie sub-genre is probably the fastest growing in all of horror. While it seems to have slowed down a tad, there are still countless numbers of films about the undead. Not surprising, a lot of it is waste, but there are also thoughtful, intelligent zombie movies that manage to terrify while also having something to say.

Director Sang-ho Yeon’s blistering South Korean zombie picture “Train to Busan” is one of the good ones. More survival thriller that straightforward horror, Yeon’s film pulls influence from several movies. It’s a bit of “Snowpiercer” meets “28 Days Later” but with a dash of “World War Z” tossed in for good measure. I’m not the first person to make those comparisons but they’re almost impossible to avoid. But that’s not a bad thing. “Train to Busan” doesn’t hang its hat on those influences. It has enough of its own ideas to make it unique.

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The film’s central relationship is between a father and daughter (right off the bat it had me – I’m easy.) Gong Yo plays a workaholic fund manager named Seok-Woo. He’s recently divorced and spends more time at the office than with his young daughter Su-an. His disconnect with his daughter is best illustrated in one scene where he gives her a birthday gift. It’s the exact same thing he recently gave her for another occasion. Frustrated, Su-an pleads with her father to take her to her mother in Busan.

The next morning father and daughter board a bullet train from Seoul to Busan. Once onboard Yeon and writer Park Joo-suk introduce us to several side characters who will impact the story in a variety of ways. There’s a blue collar husband and his pregnant wife, two elderly sisters, a self-centered CEO, a train-hopping homeless man, and even a high school baseball team. But there is one more noteworthy passenger – a staggered young woman with a bite mark in her leg. She begins to convulse, attacks an attendant, and soon the zombie spread begins leaving a handful of survivors trapped on a speeding passenger train.

There are no guidelines to how movie zombies operate. Some creep and stumble while others run full-throttle. Some return to life over time while others turn quickly. Yeon’s zombies are fast, ferocious, milky-eyed terrors. Their transformation from victim to zombie is instantaneous. This makes for several remarkably intense sequences especially considering the claustrophobic confines of a fast-moving train. Sang-ho and cinematographer Lee Hyung-deok create some stellar scenes brimming with viciousness yet not fully relying on graphic gore. Don’t get me wrong, the zombie violence is bloody but far from excessive.

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And as with the best zombie flicks, it’s the human elements that makes this one rise above genre expectations. Take the key daddy/daughter relationship. For them it becomes more than a train ride and zombie attack. It’s a wake-up call for Seok-Woo and a chance at righting his relationship with his daughter. There is also a running theme of kindness and charity in the face of great horrors. Repeatedly characters are faced with the options of working together or alone. Their decisions often impact whether people live or die. The film also examines paranoia, selfishness, sacrifice, and more.

I went into “Train to Busan” expecting a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat zombie romp and it’s very much that. It’s a tension-soaked blast of a movie but with plenty of smarts both in front and behind the camera. Its good characters, deeper themes, and impeccable execution helps it to defy any dismissive genre perceptions some folks may have. Sure, it still won’t appeal to everyone, but for me “Train to Busan” is an injection of freshness into its genre and easily in the upper tier of zombie movies.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Three Colors: Red”

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Krzysztof Kieślowski was at a pivotal point in his life while making his renowned Three Colors trilogy. He had determined that these would be his last movies and at the conclusion of his trilogy he announced it to the world. It was 1994 and Kieślowski was at the pinnacle of his career. Yet he stepped away from filmmaking with the intent of sitting at home and smoking while never ever visiting a cinema again. Sadly, Kieślowski would die two years later at the age 54. A true artist driven by his own rules right to the end.

Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy couldn’t be a better send off – a testament to a visionary’s passion for creating movies that burrow deep into the human elements that unite us. Kieślowski once said he preferred “touching on subject matters and situations which link people, and not those that divide people.” While he often spoke to the social and political climates of his times, they were too divisive and rarely his focus. He later said “Feelings are what link people together.” That very idea permeates ever frame of his Three Colors movies.

The trilogy’s name is taken from the three colors of the French flag – blue, white, and red. Each of the flag’s colors represent a particular ideal. Blue stood for liberty, white for equality, and red for fraternity. Each movie represents one of these ideals but on a human level and never within a political framework. Politics tend to divide and that was of no interest to Kieślowski. He sought to examine these principles within the confines of individual lives and all of the love, sorrow, pain, and humor that come with living. These are feelings and emotions that we all know and can connect to. All three films, while able to stand on their own, do connect in subtle and sometimes surprising ways.

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With “Red”, the final film in the Three Colors trilogy, Kieślowski saves his best for last. While pulling some elements from the previous two movies, “Red” still feels strikingly unique both in look and tone. It probably has the most obvious relationship with the ideal it represents (fraternity), but that doesn’t mean it’s free of thematic exploration and nuance. Quite the obvious. Kieślowski rarely looks at his subjects literally meaning we get plenty to meditate and chew on.

“Red” features a fairly straightforward story but with a sense of mystery and wonderment. There is also a surprising amount of warmth that we don’t see in the other movies. “Blue” was cold in much of its dealings with isolation and separation. The coldness in “White” comes in the form of a broken relationship and a jilted husband’s desire for revenge. “Red” has some of the same but it slowly and steadily moves towards the warm glow of fraternity yet not without facing the quandaries of life Kieślowski loves to contemplate.

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Irène Jacob plays Valentine, a university student and part-time bubblegum model living in Geneva. While driving home one night she hits a German Shepherd with her car. The address on the collar leads her to a reclusive ex-judge named Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Their initial meeting doesn’t go well. The soured, callous Joseph seems to care nothing about his dog and even less about Valentine. Eventually the loneliness they both share sparks a compelling bond between the two.

“Red” is a film that deals with fraternity but it’s also about miscommunication and missed connections. We see this in Valentine and Joseph’s central relationship, but there are other ways the film emphasizes it. For example, a law student named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) lives in the apartment building next to Valentine’s. The two cross paths every day yet never once seem to notice each other. Both are in less than perfect relationships, Valentine with the smug domineering Michel who we only hear over the phone, and Auguste with the flirty Karin (Frederique Feder). Both have an avenue for a potentially better relationship but constantly miss the connection.

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Kieślowski thoughtfully unwraps these people through their circumstances and intersects their stories in some unexpected ways. As he does so he challenges us to empathize with his characters and delve deeper into their motivations and feelings. This was common for Kieślowski whose true desire was to portray not merely what we see with our eyes but what we sense. This is so evident in his effective uses of each title’s color. In “Blue” it was moody and somber. In “White” it was often more naturalistic and at times idyllic. But in “Red” it conveys a number of feelings while also provokes our senses in a variety of ways.

“Red” is a mesmerizing and engaging experience right up to its peculiar but perfectly fitting ending. It connects itself to the previous two film but at the same time continues the trend of being surprisingly unique. All three movies have managed to be within the same world but strikingly different in terms of story, tone, aesthetic, and meaning. “Red” is a superb way to bring the trilogy to a close and it’s particularly moving in that this was the final movie Kieślowski would ever make. In “Red” he left us with an exclamation point on a fabulous career and a firm reminder that his work stands among the best of his craft.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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