Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

War

Overlord (R)

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Directed by: Julius Avery
Starring: Jovan Adepo
November 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


They say honesty is the best policy. In that case, I need to be honest from the start…this isn’t my kind of movie. But if I’m being totally honest, I feel like I’ve been the victim of a bait and switch. When I signed up to review this movie, I thought Overlord, the J.J. Abrams produced WWII tale, was going to be a straightforward action movie. Then I saw the trailer and thought, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” The movie’s premise is straightforward…a group of American soldiers parachute into France on the eve of D-Day. Their objective is simple; sneak into a French village under the cover of darkness and take out the radio tower that sits atop a church building. However, when the American soldiers infiltrate the church, they discover many living and dead people who’ve been mutated by evil alchemy in a makeshift dungeon. To accomplish their mission, the American troops must engage in a series of gun battles with Nazis while evading the fast-moving zombies that lurk in the claustrophobic corridors of the church. From that brief description of the story, you’ve guessed right that Overlord is a mash-up of Saving Private Ryan and I Am Legend. Although the story has some semblance of a plot, the novelty of its premise wears thin around the movie’s midpoint. Writers Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith weave their paltry plot among the tapestry of overblown action sequences and zombie brawls. Overlord is directed by Julius Avery, a virtual unknown who has directed only one other feature-length film. The cast is populated with newcomers, bit players, and journeyman character actors with nary a star among the bunch. Other than the intrigue of its story, Abrams’ name is the movie’s only real draw. The movie’s theme is as obvious as its premise: the dangers of playing God. Though taken to unrealistic extremes, you can totally see how Hitler would sanction such a diabolical plan to create super-soldiers. The “1,000 Years of the Reich” program is an interesting concept, but the zombie subplot is flagrant revisionist history and is only in the story to provide thrills and chills for the audience. Overlord has an excessive amount of violence, swearing and disturbing images. Aside from its myriad shoot-outs between Nazis and American forces, the movie also contains a graphic torture scene and two attempted rapes. We catch glimpses of disfigured and mutated humans inside the cells in the church’s basement. The surgery room contains mutilated cadavers and several experiments gone wrong, like a talking woman who has only a head and spinal column (which is much more macabre than the initial image of the bodiless Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact). The mutation process, when human subjects are turned into zombies, is quite hideous. Another horrific scene is when corpses (failed experiments) are carted out of the church, dumped into a ditch and incinerated with a flamethrower. Those with a weak stomach have been forewarned. One area of the movie that’s commendable is its production. From the opening CG shot of the Allied fleet to the pyrotechnics and FX, to the costumes and creature makeup, Overlord is a well-crafted movie. It’s to Avery’s credit that he only sparingly resorts to standard horror movie gimmicks, like characters suddenly appearing in front of the camera to startle the audience. In the final analysis, Overlord is a war/horror hybrid that’s unabashedly graphic. From start to finish, the movie is gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous. Though Overlord is a unique film, it certainly isn’t a great one.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

Indivisible (PG-13)

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Directed by: David G. Evans
Starring: Justin Bruening
October 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Based on the true story of how Army Chaplain Darren Turner (Justin Bruening) suffered from PTSD after returning home from Iraq in 2008, Indivisible is a well acted and produced film about faith and family. A third of the film takes place in Iraq (filmed in Santa Clarita, CA—M*A*S*H country) and another third in Memphis, Tennessee. During these scenes, the story effectively shifts its focus between the battlefront and the home front. Not only does the parallel action keep the movie rolling along, it also serves as the structure and core of the film. The final third of the movie focuses on the events before and after Darren’s tour of duty. Instead of fanfare and bliss, Darren returns home to a marriage on the brink. Darren’s wife, Heather (Sarah Drew), is deeply distressed by his withdrawal from her and the kids. Darren and Heather are a proxy for many other couples who’ve struggled to readjust to “normal” family life after a spouse returns home from active duty. The most poignant scene in the movie is when Darren tells Heather she has no idea how horrible it was in Iraq and Heather tells Darren he has no idea how difficult it was to raise kids all by herself while consoling many other soldier’s wives. The scene contains superb acting and is infused with raw emotion. It’s a shame the rest of the movie wasn’t as riveting or dramatic. Despite the finest allocation of its limited budget, Indivisible comes off as an inspirational movie of the week rather than a major theatrical release. Though the movie flirts with meaning, many scenes are oversimplified, predictable and borderline schmaltzy, which is a shame since the serious nature of the story demanded more from it. Still, it’s clear that everyone involved in the production was dedicated to the story and its message. Bruening and Drew, who both appeared on TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, have excellent screen chemistry and do a fine job portraying their characters. The movie boasts some fine guest performers as well, including Michael O’Neill as Chaplain Rogers and Eric Close as Lieutenant Colonel Jacobsen. In the end, Indivisible is too conservative for its own good—director David G. Evans could’ve portrayed the effects of PTSD in a more compelling and serious manner while retaining the movie’s family friendly, faith affirming themes and values. Unfortunately, what we’re left with is heartfelt but Hallmarky.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

Darkest Hour (PG-13)

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Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman
December 2017


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
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In the wake of Neville Chamberlain’s failed policy of appeasement, which has unwittingly abetted Hitler’s aggressive advance across Europe, Winston Churchill is enlisted to stem the tide of evil and help end WWII.

The Evaluation:

Darkest Hour is an immersive period piece with authentic, and finely mounted, production elements. The film’s success or failure largely depended on its casting. Fortunately, the actor chosen to inhabit the central role was more than up to the task. Gary Oldman delivers a career turn here as Winston Churchill. Could another actor have pulled off the part? Perhaps. But sometimes roles are tailor-made for a performer and such is the case here as the melding of character and actor was a feat of cinematic alchemy. Writer Anthony McCarten opens the movie with typist Elizabeth Layton’s (Lily James) first day on the job. McCarten introduces Layton and the audience to Churchill at the same time; an effective decision that thrusts us right into the heart of the action. Darkest Hour references the events portrayed in Dunkirk (2017); it was Churchill’s Operation Dynamo that mobilized a flotilla of 800 boats to rescue the 338,226 Allied soldiers who were surrounded by German troops on the infamous French beach. Also mentioned here is Churchill’s earlier failure (yes, this is a redemption story) at Gallipoli, which is chronicled in the fine 1981 film of the same name starring Mel Gibson. The sequence where Churchill rides the underground (subway) with commoners is the film’s standout moment as it serves to humanize Churchill while also fortifying his resolve to reject Hitler’s demands. Since the movie ends in the middle of the war, there’s still plenty of material to support a sequel. Maybe it will be called Darkest Minute, to be followed by Darkest Second to round out the trilogy. Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Joe Wright (Atonement) does yeoman’s work here and evokes dazzling performances from his cast. The overall style is effective, but the interiors are exceedingly colorless and drab. However, it could be argued that such an aesthetic is the perfect accompaniment to the movie’s sullen subject matter.

Acting- An astounding performance by Oldman, who should be a strong contender for the Best Actor Oscar.

Story- A terrific screenplay by McCarten. The only drawback is that sometimes descriptions of off-screen actions are unclear and the pacing is a tad slow.

Costumes/Make-up- The costumes are well crafted and are period appropriate. The make-up (including latex appliances and torso padding to help Oldman resemble portly Churchill) is truly exceptional.

Cinematography- Limited to building interiors and claustrophobic corridors for much of the action, the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel succeeds despite its limitations.

Music- Dario Marianelli delivers a solid score that supports the film without distracting from the action.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- The limited sets are a drawback, but everything else is top-notch.

Movie Magic- Slow pacing and familiar subject matter are minuses, but the powerhouse central performance and rousing ending are huge pluses.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Dunkirk (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead
July 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Who else but Christopher Nolan (Inception) would be ambitious, or insane, enough to helm a film that depicts one of the worst military defeats in history? Based on the true account of how British and French forces were cut off and surrounded by the German army with their backs to the sea, Dunkirk is a prime example of how military intelligence often lives up to its reputation as an oxymoron. With the large troop transports blasted into flotsam, a flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure yachts was mobilized to rescue the 330,000 soldiers stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, France. But with enemy planes bombing the beachhead, the stranded soldiers were the very definition of sitting ducks. The film’s action takes place in three different arenas: land (getting off the beach), sea (boarding boats and evading enemy bombs) and air (destroying inbound enemy fighters and bombers). As would be expected with a Nolan film, the action sequences are absolutely mind-blowing and the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is meticulously crafted. Some of the finest sequences in the film are the dogfights, which effectively meld newer camera techniques with the shuddering, metal shearing, bolt-popping rawness of a classical Hollywood war film. The performances are adequate to the task, but there’s a dearth of dialog and a surfeit of long, penetrating gazes in the film. Case in point, the great Kenneth Branagh (as Commander Bolton) is reduced to a series of slow zoom close-ups that make him appear as if he’s struggling to hold in a suppository. Likewise, James D’Arcy (as Colonel Winnant) does little more than pace back and forth in a state of perpetual agitation, fretfully delivering the same line a dozen different ways over the course of the film. Young performers Fionn Whitehead and Damien Bonnard do the majority of the physical acting, but really aren’t given much to say either. Ironically, the character we are most drawn to is ace pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy), whose face is partially concealed for the majority of the movie. Also ironic is the fact that the film’s biggest drawback is Nolan’s writing. The cause and effect narrative takes us from one event, happening or action scene to the next with very little, if any, character moments in between. Dunkirk’s narrative is comprised of a series of storyboarded sequences and, as such, plays like a cinematic comic strip. The lack of character development leads to a disinterest in the few characters that actually have lines in the film. Indeed, due to the dearth of emotional investment in the characters, we don’t really sympathize with them at all. Though vastly different in theme and tone, Dunkirk is exactly what Titanic would’ve been without the love story. The reason Titanic was a titular success is that James Cameron crafted real characters that we could identify with so that when the inevitable disaster struck we were right there with them, in essence inhabiting their bodies and experiencing the tragedy with them firsthand. Aside from its marvelous acting, directing, detailed period elements and high production values, it’s that immediacy, that soul-possessing intimacy, which made the movie resonate so powerfully with audiences. In Dunkirk, we never get under the skin of the characters…everything is external. Because Dunkirk is so well made, scores of people will disagree with my assessment of the film. However, how much more powerful would the film have been if our connection with the characters was so strong that we could feel the sand between our toes as we stood beside the soldiers or felt the bone-jarring concussion of the bombs impacting on the beach? Taking nothing away from Nolan, who is a fine director in his own right, but in the hands of Steven Spielberg, who would’ve sent the script back for a massive rewrite insisting on richer back stories and more poignant character moments, Dunkirk would’ve been a four star film and Best Picture nominee.

Wonder Woman (PG-13)

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Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot
June 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Let’s face it, the best part of last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was the arrival of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) during the epic confrontation. Providing some much needed vitality and panache to a mostly ponderous and lackluster film, Wonder Woman’s presence served the dual function of saving one film and instilling confidence in her ability to carry another. As it turns out, that confidence was well-placed since Wonder Woman is a far better film than that other one where the two squabbling male heroes needed the feminine touch to avert Doomsday. The first film to feature a female superhero opens with an elegant back story that gives us a glimpse into the early years of clay-made Diana (Lilly Aspell), who is raised on a paradise island among Amazon women—governed by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. We’re treated to a montage of well-choreographed training scenes, and then, quicker than you can yell “Princess of Themyscira,” Diana (Gadot) has transformed into an adult. Diana’s tranquil, idyllic life is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a German plane that crashes into the ocean inside the protective dome created by Zeus (isn’t it supposed to be impenetrable?). Diana rescues the pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (not James Kirk), who is played by Chris Pine. Steve, a British spy who speaks with an American accent, is in possession of information that could prove instrumental in ending the war. Diana is also invested in the cessation of hostilities and assigns herself the task of destroying Ares, the god of war. But will their opposing views on how to stop the bloodshed create its own conflict between Diana and Steve? Set during WWI, WW is a curious cross-universe twin of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), which took place during World War II and also featured a super-strong hero armed with an impervious, circular shield and an unerring moral compass. Was setting WW in 1918 instead of the post-Doomsday present a misstep? Hard to say, but the film’s quality certainly doesn’t suffer from the decision over its milieu. Gadot and Pine have excellent chemistry together and the other performers offer stellar support, especially Danny Huston and David Thewlis. WW contains the optimal balance of story to action…let’s hope the upcoming Justice League follows that same formula. And why no Superman in JL? Wasn’t DC’s long game with Man of Steel (2013) and BVS to have Henry Cavill, along with Ben Affleck and Gadot, headline JL—a strategy filched wholesale from rival Marvel, which set up The Avengers franchise with its raft of stand-alone superhero showcases? Superman’s conspicuous absence from JL not only squanders Cavill’s talents, but also sidelines one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world from anchoring a film that’s been in the planning stages for years. Well, at least Wonder Woman will appear in JL. She’s proven herself to be a solid reliever as well as a dependable starter. WW is the best DC movie since Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Will wonders never cease?

Hacksaw Ridge (R)

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Directed by: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield
November 2016

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

There are a number of similarities between Mel Gibson’s new World War II story, Hacksaw Ridge and the WWI set Sergeant York (1941). Hacksaw’s Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and York’s Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper) are both devout Christians and conscientious objectors. Due to the sixth commandment in the Bible, both men object to war since war is killing. Both men face heat for their beliefs from their families, friends, fellow soldiers and commanding officers. However, the persecution is much more severe for Doss, who is berated and beaten by the men in his barracks for his refusal to bear arms. Ultimately, both men join the service, but for completely different reasons: Doss, who wants to heal people rather than kill them, becomes a medic while York, an expert marksman known for blasting his initials in trees and winning a local turkey shooting contest, decides to use his skills to protect the lives of his loved ones and to defend American freedom. The heroic actions of both men defy the conventions of reality and are two of the more inspirational stories in the annals of war. And both stories have been adapted into top-tier films. Hacksaw’s narrative is divided into thirds: the early stages are dedicated to Doss’s boyhood, where he roughhouses with his brother and is raised by a long-suffering mother, Bertha Doss (Rachel Griffiths), and ex-soldier alcoholic father, Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), and his late teen years when he meets and marries Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). The middle of the film deals with the adversity Doss faces at boot camp and the ensuing court martial. The movie’s concluding chapters focus on Doss’s exploits in the war, specifically the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, one of the bloodiest struggles of WWII. During lulls in the action, Doss crawled over the corpse-riddled battlefield searching for survivors while evading Japanese patrols whose objective it was to kill any American soldiers still clinging to life. Doss devised an ingenious way of lowering casualties down the side of a cliff to safety—easily the most awe-inspiring, heart-stopping sequences in the film. In the end, Doss saved 75 lives without firing a single shot at the enemy. As such, Doss was the first ever non-combatant soldier to receive the Medal of Honor. Garfield is pitch-perfect in his portrayal of Doss; his flat affect and aw-shucks demeanor hasn’t been a natural fit for many of his roles, i.e., The Amazing Spider-Man films, but works wonders here. Weaving, best known for his roles in The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings films, paints a tragic portrait of a once-heroic man now controlled and triggered by the bottle. Vince Vaughn is a laugh-a-minute drill sergeant who injects some much needed comic relief into the story to counterbalance the movie’s horrific and grisly scenes. Griffiths is effective in an ancillary role and Palmer is delightful as the sweetheart nurse who first inspires Doss to become a healer. Sam Worthington plays one of Doss’ superior officers, Captain Jack Glover, a man who initially distrusts Doss but comes around when Doss heroically sacrifices himself for his squad mates. The biggest name in the film, of course, is director Mel Gibson. Gibson’s anti-Semitic remarks and longstanding troubles with alcohol have kept him on the outs with Hollywood for the better part of a decade now. Tom Doss’ character reflects some of Gibson’s struggles, so you can tell that this project was personal for the director. Those who are turned off by the non-stop action of the typical war film will find plenty of character scenes to offset the onslaught of action in the latter stages of the film. At its core, this is an anti-war war film. Hacksaw boasts fine performances, tremendous production values and an incredible true story. Just as Doss’ acts of valor redeemed him in the eyes of his fellow soldiers, hopefully Gibson’s efforts here will help him to regain a measure of respect from his Hollywood peers. We’ll see come awards season.

American Sniper (R)

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Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper
January 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

AmericanSniper

The opening scene is the trailer. Right into the action.

Three types of people. A stern lesson.
Chris Kyle’s dad dispenses this harsh wisdom in order to toughen up his sons. Interestingly, in the early goings of Eastwood’s Jersey Boys (2014), a mentor tells Frankie Valli and his cronies that there’s only three ways out of the neighborhood. Maybe it’s just unfounded numerology, but the similarities between these scenes seemed worthy of highlighting.

She did it to get attention. Any excuse will do, I suppose.
If you’re caught red-handed, just confess. The “you weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow” excuse is lame to the degree that it’s almost worse than the act of indiscretion.

Playing darts on a guy’s back. These SEALs are tough!
Lots of machismo in this scene. And a fateful night for Kyle, who meets his future wife at the bar.

“The space between heartbeats.” Who knew target practice could be so poetic?

He can’t hit a target, but he can tag a snake.
Reminds me of Paul Hogan’s Lightning Jack (1994), a self-styled Old West outlaw from Down Under who needed glasses to read but could hollow out a coin with a bullet from fifty feet away.

New Olympic sport...sniping.
The addition of the Syrian sniper is one of the film’s main criticisms. Apparently this nemesis is largely fictional, finding inspiration from a solitary chapter in Kyle’s book. However, the addition of a competent counterpart to Kyle ratchets up the tension and provides a de facto villain to the proceedings. The cat and mouse contest between the two top snipers reminds me of the taut action sequences between expert marksmen Jude Law and Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates (2001).

Nitpick: Despite what the smart Alec says, it is a comic book. Graphic novels are much thicker.
A graphic novel is an expanded story or a collection of loosely related, non-continuous stories. It should be obvious, to anyone who’s ever picked up a comic book, that what the cocky character is holding in his hands is a single issue of a serialized comic book series, not a graphic novel.

“Horny preggers.” Ha!

Clear houses with the marines...takin’ it to the street.
I applaud Kyle’s assertiveness. Instead of just following orders and sitting around, Kyle was instrumental in saving the lives of many Marines while also extracting vital intel with his advanced negotiation/coercion skills.

Neighbor’s lawnmower turns on...the first signs of PTSD.
And speaking of PTSD…

The shell shocked brother scene is sad.

A direct action squad...bold new plan.

Squeaky floor, hidden cache.
So much for the hospitality. Hope the meal was good.

“You saved my life.” Goosebumps.
Cooper’s performance, as a man uncomfortable with accepting praise from others, is thoroughly convincing here.

“You can only circle the flame so long.” Sobering. And prescient?
It looks like that statement was prescient after all, although what ultimately does Kyle in completely took me by surprise.

Zales bites the bullet.
A tragic story line since it looked like he would pull through.

Tour Four: is this a vocation or addiction?
A condition we also saw in The Hurt Locker (2008) when soldiers were shown playing FPS video games on their downtime. Here, Kyle watches video recordings of some of the military operations he was a part of and, even more frighteningly, relives battles in his mind while starring at the black screen of a turned off TV.

“Don’t pick it up” scene is heart-stopping.
This is the ultimate crisis moment in the film. What an awful decision to be faced with. No wonder he had PTSD. Who wouldn’t?

Sandstorm. Visibility nil. How the heck do they know who they’re shooting at?
Talk about the fog of war! These are prime conditions for friendly fire.

“Who’s the legend now?” Ha!
Eastwood lays the “legend” status on pretty thick, especially since I’d never heard of Kyle before watching this film.

Final analysis: a haunting look at conflict in the Middle East and the toll it takes on our soldiers.
And at how little we invest in their lives after they return home.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A career turn by Cooper and Eastwood’s finest film in years.
What was Eastwood’s last great movie: Invictus (2009)? Gran Torino (2008)?

For all of the active/retired members of the military reading this, thank you for your service.

How fitting that an actor/director whose name has become synonymous with bullet-riddled actioners over the last half century should helm a movie based on the incredible true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. There can be no doubt that this is Clint Eastwood’s finest directorial effort in years and that, when his illustrious career finally comes to an end, this film may very well go down as his behind-the-camera magnum opus. Based on the book of the same name by Jason Hall and Kyle himself, American Sniper follows the exploits of this decorated soldier and his plights on the battlefield and on the home front. Bradley Cooper, in an unequivocally brilliant performance, fully inhabits the title role and imbues Kyle with genuine emotions and reactions to the most stressful, unenviable circumstances imaginable (reference the “Don’t pick it up” scene). Regardless of the location or situation, Cooper eases himself into scenes that require: decisiveness on the front lines, tenderness at home with his family, awkwardness when praised for his heroic accomplishments and startling deftness at picking off enemy combatants in the heat of battle. With appropriate kudos going to the two men who made this film an indelible, inescapable biopic, it’s time to shift focus to the elephant in the room—as you’re probably aware of by now, thanks to media saturation, this film has generated a generous amount of controversy. Other than the fact that there are just as many F bombs dropped as bullets fired in the film, it’s hard to see how anything in this movie can be construed as controversial. Some will argue that the movie glamorizes violence, but in reality it does the exact opposite by depicting the horrors of war and the devastating effects it has on our troops. With all due respect to those who maintain a dissenting viewpoint, and at the sake of fanning the flame of an already incendiary topic, those who assess this film as a pro-war endorsement are completely missing the point. War is hell and its effects on soldiers are often mentally debilitating, as evidenced by Kyle’s severe PTSD in the movie. Despite several protracted battle sequences, which detail some of the major skirmishes Kyle participated in, the film in no way glorifies war. By contrast, the film shows good people getting their faces blown off or innocents being tortured by a drill, examples that underscore the need for our continued participation in ending the reign of terror in the Middle East. Again, I vehemently oppose the notion that this is a pro-war propaganda piece…it’s a brutally honest portrait of one man’s combat experiences and the traumatic effects those four tours of duty had on his psyche and his entire family; as the movie subtly reveals, everyone suffers when the soldier returns home from active duty. It’s a shame that the well advertised controversy, which hangs over the film like an oppressive layer of cloud, has cast an unflattering light upon this superlative film. However, judging from the way this movie has engendered long lines and packed theaters (I was shut out on its opening weekend), the controversy surrounding the film has generated a buzz that’s done wonders for its bottom line. Bottom line, Eastwood and Cooper are worthy of Oscar attention and the story is a potent reminder that freedom is never free. This film will stand the test of time, and with good reason. Parting shot: the extended “moment of silence” during the end credits is sobering and haunting.

The Imitation Game (PG-13)

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Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Imitation Game

The opening narration admonishes us to “pay attention.”
Thanks to Sherlock, I’ve been conditioned to automatically pay attention whenever Cumberbatch is onscreen.

Cumberbatch is recruited to study the “crooked hand of death.”
Otherwise known as Enigma. If you remember the movie U-571 (2000), their mission was to board a German sub and steal an Enigma device. Hey, maybe the encryption machine Cumberbatch’s team is trying to decipher is the same one from U-571?

“Should we leave the children alone with their new toy?” Ha!

Mission: check twenty million settings in twenty minutes. No problem.
If you’re Data (ST:TNG).

A machine to defeat a machine.
Sounds like a Terminator movie. This concept doesn’t sound like rocket science, but, inexplicably, it was back during WWII. The fact that Turing’s insistence on building/funding a machine was resisted by the military is simply incredible. How shortsighted and…illogical.

Crossword audition is clever.
But the chauvinistic tryout is disappointing. Apparently only men were good at crosswords back then.

Christopher is turned on for the first time.
This was the only child Alan Turing ever had, but what a brainchild. His creation (a rudimentary computer) not only single-handedly shortened the war; it’s changed the course of human evolution.

A rudimentary key word search is devised. Bloody brilliant!

“Turns out that’s the only German you need to know to break Enigma.”
The movie avers that love ended the war, but it was really Germany’s undying allegiance to Hitler that did them in—in more ways than one.

“We’ll have each other’s minds.” Uncommon bravery.
This is an astounding scene. Clarke’s (Knightley) willingness to marry Turing even after he reveals that he’s gay is mind-boggling. Turing knows that a life with him would be unfulfilling and rife with hardship so he pushes Clarke away with a vicious lie. In reality, he loves her too much to consign her to a life of unhappiness with him. It’s a bitter exchange with incisive dialog and superlative acting.

Final analysis: a staggering true story with a tremendous lead performance by Cumberbatch.
Cumberbatch continues to astound with each new part he plays…be it human or dragon.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A superb period piece that should garner a great deal of Oscar attention.

As Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) voiceover narration attests, intelligence wins wars…not planes, ships or boots on the ground. Though Imitation resembles neither a traditional, action-packed war film, nor a spy thriller, it’s much more than just a true story about how the Brits subverted the German intelligence apparatus: it’s a bracing character study, a tragic tale of unrequited love, a psychological war film (with only brief glimpses of actual combat) and a true account of how Turing’s machine helped to end the war while ushering in the computer age. A non-action war movie might not sound all that exciting, but thanks to its engaging story and fascinating character interplay, interest never wanes during the two hour drama…a tribute to Graham Moore’s screenplay (based on Andrew Hodges’ book) and Morten Tyldum’s taut direction. Of course, the name and face on the poster is what will attract viewers to this low-key, slow-boil period piece. Due in large part to his work on TVs Sherlock and big screen blockbusters like Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Cumberbatch has become a household name and is fast becoming one of the finest actors of his generation. If Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock is noticeably ADHD, his turn as Turing more closely resembles someone on the spectrum. The lunch invite scene is uproariously funny and features a spot-on Asperger-ish delivery by Cumberbatch. As for the movie’s romance, Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are brilliant as mismatched lovers. It’s profoundly sad that the mental compatibility these characters possess doesn’t translate into physical compatibility. This failed romance begs an interesting relational question: is the meeting of minds more important than physical infatuation? Many would respond in the affirmative, and if true, Turing and Clarke had a deep, meaningful love affair in spite of its platonic status. The procedural component of the film drags at times but contains enough unexpected turns to keep the audience engaged. The team of code breakers includes some interesting characters, one of whom has extracurricular allegiances, a subplot that provides the movie with a spot of intrigue. The size, composition and specialties of the group are strikingly similar to the members of the implosion team on WGN America’s Manhattan, a WWII set TV series that chronicles the mad scramble by American scientists to discover a way to split the atom. Though on opposite sides of the pond, Manhattan and Imitation both center on groups of scientists and mathematicians working on top-secret projects to defeat the Nazis amid an oppressive military presence; and both objectives are challenged by unforeseen consequences. The burden of knowledge has rarely been as devastatingly depicted as in this film. Indeed, Enigma becomes a Pandora’s Box of sorts when the code is finally cracked but restraint must be exercised so as to not tip off the Germans that their complex cipher has been decoded. The implications of this ethical dilemma erupt in a scene where one of the young men on Turing’s team, Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), realizes that warning his brother’s ship of an impending German attack would expose their discovery and effectively nullify the years of work that went into breaking the German code. It’s a bitter twist on Star Trek’s “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” maxim that Peter’s brother must die in order to preserve the secret that can win the war. How ironic that the team was so preoccupied with cracking the code that they failed to consider the implications and ramifications of what that knowledge would bring. Armed with substantial narrative and emotional complexity, this highly intelligent intelligence movie will go down as one of the finest non-war War movies in cinema history. There’s nothing Imitation about the film…it’s one of a kind.

Unbroken (PG-13)

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Directed by: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Jack O’Connell
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Unbroken
And co-written by the Coen brothers, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling biography. You’d be hard pressed to find a stranger amalgamation of creative talent on any movie project, much less a historical biopic.

Heavy flack...so much for the sneak attack.
Correction: flak. Flack is what I’ll get for misspelling the word.

“Love thine enemy.” An apropos homily for what’s to come.

Run, Louie, run!
With apologies to Forrest. But seriously, this scene reminded me a lot of the early running scenes in Forrest Gump (1994).

Brother’s parting words are profound.
In fact, Louie’s brother has some of the most inspirational lines in the film and is, arguably, the reason why Louie has the mental tenacity to survive his many ordeals.

Certified by Helen Keller. Ha!
Helen Keller jokes are usually made in poor taste, but I couldn’t keep from laughing at this one given the context.

A bump on the raft in the middle of the night. Doesn’t get much more terrifying than that.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep…in fact, I’m positive.

The barf scene is disgusting. Glad I didn’t see this in 3D.
Lest you grow frustrated searching Fandango for a 3D version of the film, know that I was using hyperbole here. My comment was solely intended as a jest. Still, Jolie didn’t have to film the puke coming straight at the camera…and audience by extension.

Take your pick: a strafing plane or man eating sharks.

Would you rather die on the open seas or be taken to a Japanese internment camp?
There’s a card game with similar hypothetical quandaries, but I’d be willing to bet that this scenario isn’t one of them.

Louis refuses to read a false statement...becomes a human punching bag.
The price of allegiance…and integrity.

The Tokyo Ritz turns out to be a coal barge.
Instead of a chocolate on their pillow they get a lump of coal as their pillow.

Louis lifts a heavy beam over his head...his own personal cross.
In addition to being beaten with a bamboo stick and repeatedly punched in the face, this is yet another parallel between Louis’ sufferings and Christ’s.

Final analysis: a heavy true story that captures the triumph of the human spirit amid tragedy and suffering.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Not an enjoyable film but an important and inspiring one.

I must admit, when I first learned that this film was directed by Angelina Jolie and co-written by the Coen brothers, I had serious doubts that it would adhere to Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book or, more importantly, honor the extraordinary life of its central personage, Louis Zamperini. I’ve never been happier to have been proven wrong. Jolie’s direction isn’t masterful but it’s very good…perhaps even surprisingly good. Of course, Jolie was supported by some exceptional talent behind the camera, beautiful location work and finely crafted, period appropriate props, sets, costumes and other production elements. The story hews fairly close to Hillenbrand’s novelized biography with a few notable embellishments and exclusions. While the book mentions the survivors catching birds and fish for food, grabbing a shark right out of the water by its tail seems a bit Hollywoodized. One significant omission from the film is that during the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin (1936), Zamperini actually met Hitler, who complimented the runner on his record-shattering final lap of the 5000-meter race. While on the subject of the Olympics, I wish Jolie would’ve spent more time on this aspect of Zamperini’s amazing life journey…it would’ve served as a lighter, happier counterbalance to the bleak and tragic events that dominate the back half of the film. To whit, for those who are disturbed by images of violence, the movie’s torture scenes may be difficult to endure. Though a far cry from torture porn, squeamish spectators are advised to avert their eyes or make a run to the concession counter during the beating scenes. All things considered, Jolie acquitted herself well in her second directorial effort and the story itself, though difficult to watch at times, is undeniably inspirational. It fills me with profound sadness that Zamperini never got to see his life story on the big screen—he passed away on July 2, 2014. This was a true account that deserved to be experienced by a mass audience, so I’m thrilled that it’ll now be immortalized on the big screen for future generations to experience. Your life and legacy are an inspiration to us all, Louie. RIP.

Fury (R)

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Directed by: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt
October 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Fury

Pitt rides into tank hell.
This opening sequence reminds me of Sybok cantering through the desert straight toward the camera at the outset of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). Obviously the setting (and planet) is completely different here, but the shots themselves are close cousins.

Fury rolls into camp.
They’re greeted with vacant stares. Not much of a hero’s welcome.

A trope of war movies is the new guy...here his name in Norman.
The presence of Michael Pena is another war movie convention; the inclusion of at least one minority on the team.

Don’t touch Shia’s ‘stache.
I don’t begrudge him his defensiveness. After all, it probably took him a year to grow.

Why do fired bullets look like laser beams here?
Not much to add to this, but at times I thought I was watching a Star Wars movie.

Norman is faced with a “simple math” equation. Not so easy to carry out.

Norman is multi-talented: he plays piano, reads palms and is quite the ladies man.
That last one is a bit of a euphemism.

How to ruin a perfectly good egg breakfast.
Yeah, unless I was starving, I wouldn’t eat licked eggs.

Tank dogfight is intense.
Dogfight is typically used for one-on-one plane battles, though. Guess the word I should’ve used is…bullfight?

Pitt’s dogged directive: “Hold this crossroads!”
Two tweets in a row with the word “dog” in them. Woof!

Shia quotes scripture: “Here am I, send me.”
However, he also takes the Lord’s name in vain. Wonder if he knows the one about the impossibility of fresh and salt water flowing from the same fountain (James 3:11)? (Not to mention the third commandment as set forth in Exodus 20:7).

One tank versus an army. Never tell me the odds.
This battle certainly illustrates how a tank can function as a mini-fortress.

The final, high angle shot of the corpse riddled crossroads is horrific.
Although, I actually would’ve expanded the shot out even further, but the point was made, I suppose.

Final analysis: a standard issue war story that evokes a strong sense of time and place.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A decent war tale, but even Pitt can’t lift the standard story out of the mud.

This certainly isn’t the first tank-centric WWII movie ever made—Sahara (1943), The Desert Fox (1951) and Lebanon (2009) to name three right off the top of my head), nor is it the most original. What is new here are the modern battle sequences which feature rockets and bullets whizzing by like laser beams in a sci-fi shootout. I have no way of knowing if these seemingly anachronistic visuals are accurate or not (I wasn’t there), but I’ve never seen this kind of special effect in any other war movie. As incredulous as it sounds, tanks firing laser beams is the least of this movie’s problems. Relying heavily upon war movie conventions and offering little that hasn’t been seen and done a hundred times before in WWII bloodbaths severely hobbles this film…like a tank that’s thrown a tread. Aside from a few reasonably suspenseful battle scenes and the climactic standoff, there’s really little to recommend the movie, other than the notable cast and high end production values. There’s a standout scene right in the middle of the movie when the tank officers invade the home of two German women. The reprehensible behaviors exhibited by the soldiers (Shia LaBeouf, The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal and Gracepoint’s Michael Pena) during this scene makes us loose all respect for them; so much so that when the final conflict arrives, we really don’t care if they live or die…it’s extremely difficult to emotionally invest in unsympathetic characters. In the end, Pitt, the new guy (Logan Lerman) and the tank itself are about the only things we have any kind of affinity for in the movie, and that really isn’t enough to justify shelling over a ten spot, two singles and a pair of quarters for (current ticket price in the OC). Is Fury a decent WWII flick? Sure. Is it worthy of inclusion into the War Movie Hall of Fame? Not even remotely. Let’s face it, without Pitt’s presence this movie would’ve tanked.

Walking with the Enemy (PG-13)

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Directed by: Mark Schmidt
Starring: Jonas Armstrong
April 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Walking With the Enemy
Mr. Kingsley, as you’ll recall, also played a protagonist opposed to the Nazis in Schindler’s List (1993).

1944. Hungary. Nazi invasion. Restrictions. Curfews. And so it begins.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Not so warm welcome at the work camp.
As would be expected…this isn’t the Ritz after all.

Kingsley, the Hungarian leader, must choose the lesser of two evils.
Some good acting here, but nothing that really makes Kingsley flex his acting muscles. Also, too many of the shots in this scene were done from one camera setup, which makes the sequence feel static and unimaginative. A prime indicator of just how time and budget constrained this film is.

American planes arrive. An exciting but short-lived action scene.
Just a guess, but this sequence probably consumed about half of the movie’s budget.

German officers take what they want. Rough scene.

You definitely don’t want to get caught with a radio.

“This piece of paper is someone’s life.” A chilling statement.
This scene has considerable dramatic heft; ironic considering how lightweight the object in question is. Items purchasing freedom for the oppressed echoes the scene at the end of Schindler’s List where Schindler is willing to offer his watch and car to save more lives; a bargain, he bitterly realizes, he’s too late to make.

The greater of two evils stages a coup.
A. Germany. B. Russia. Unless you’re a student of history you have a 50/50 chance of guessing correct.

German officers joke about their “resorts.” Detestable.

Final analysis: an OK WWII tale that’s notable more for its historical importance than its filmmaking.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Kingsley’s involvement is negligible in a film desperate for his talent.

Despite its obvious dearth of talent, time and money, the movie makes the most of what it has by featuring some impressive on location work. Also, the film’s sets, props and outfits (uniforms play a major role in the film) are all well designed and period appropriate. What holds the movie back is middling performances by a largely no-name cast, a sputtering screenplay by Kenny Golde (the first half of the film really drags and some of it could’ve been condensed or trimmed since the film runs fifteen minutes too long anyway) and standard, largely uninspired direction by Mark Schmidt. What’s sad about the end result here is that this true account is actually an inspiring tale of courage and cleverness in the face of unspeakable evil. One wonders how significant the improvement in overall quality would’ve been if the movie had had a bigger budget, a top shelf director (a la Spielberg, who tends to do well with this period of history) and some real star power. As for Kingsley, he does what he can with what little screen time he’s given, but his presence is more like a cameo than a star turn. On this count, the movie poster, which prominently features Kingsley’s visage, is more than a little disingenuous. Fans of the performer will feel shortchanged by his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part, while those who know Kingsley only by sight will wonder why this accomplished actor isn’t featured more prominently in the story. Either way, the movie needed more of Kingsley. And more money wouldn’t have hurt either.

The Monuments Men (PG-13)

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Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney
February 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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A blunder right out of the gate…no apostrophe appears in the title.

Two spits for Stahl. Drink up!

Who will make sure the Mona Lisa keeps smiling? Compelling argument.

“They’re not blanks.” Ha!
This training sequence feels like it was lifted right out of a classical Hollywood war movie. Uproariously funny.

Post D-Day Normandy. Gorgeous revolving shot of the characters as they step onto the beach.

Damon’s poor French ensures brief subtitle scenes...thankfully.
A very clever decision on the part of scriptwriters Clooney and Grant Heslov.

Clooney’s speech to his men is inspiring...and depressing.
Inspiring for the audience, depressing for his team.

A German standoff. Smoking with the enemy.
Another riotously hilarious scene. Balaban and Murray are pitch-perfect in their deliveries.

Murray’s gift 45 hits all the right emotional notes.
A really special moment amid the atrocities of the war.

Talk about a bad place to take a cigarette break.
This scene is shot in Germany, and for those who’ve never been there, this is exactly how it looks…right down to the overcast sky.

Blanchett entrusts Damon with “her life.”
She actually wants to give him something more.

Talk about a national treasure!
The Dwarves or Erebor couldn’t have stacked it any better.

Grab and go...the Russians are coming.
No, Alan Arkin doesn’t make an appearance here, although that would’ve been a choice inside gag.

Final analysis: for the often heavy subject matter, this is a surprisingly feel-good movie.

Phenomenal production values, fine performances and a gorgeous score from Alexandre Desplat.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. An important film with a poignant message. Will it be forgotten by next Oscars?

To start with, it’s just a blast to see all of these stars together on the big screen. Secondly, it’s nice to see a war movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is affecting only when it needs to be. There are some gorgeous shots (Dujardin sprinting across the field) and scenes (Bonneville’s heroic stand to protect the Madonna and Child statue in Bruges) in the film and the production perfectly captures the look and feel of Europe in the 1940s. This is just an incredible story that illuminates a sidebar event during WWII. Much appreciation goes to Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, who wrote the book upon which the movie is based, and to director Clooney for capturing these recreated events with such verve and veracity.

The Book Thief (PG-13)

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Directed by: Brian Percival
Starring: Sophie Nelisse
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Beautiful shots of snow covered fields during the movie’s opening.

Acquires the first book at her brother’s funeral.

The lyrics to the kid’s choir song are horrifying. Talk about corrupting the next generation.
…with racist propaganda.

The sight of all these Nazi flags is unsettling.

A bonfire for “intellectual dirt” and a speech sure to turn your stomach.
The scary thing is that Hitler was convinced he was doing God’s work.

Leisel makes an unexpected new friend.
Okay, so this spelling of the girl’s name wasn’t underlined in red so I assumed it was the correct spelling. Apparently the “i” comes before the “e”. I changed the spelling of her name mid-movie when I saw her name written in a book.

Snowball fight in the basement is a fun scene.

Liesel learns the meaning of the word “conscripted.”
The hard way.

Story time during an air raid. Brave girl indeed.
An audience isn’t any more captive than that.

Death is “haunted by humans.”

The final twenty minutes are extremely difficult to watch.
If you made it through Schindler’s List (1993), you’ll probably be okay. Otherwise…

Final analysis: a finely mounted period piece with excellent performances and a moving narrative.
Geoffrey rush and Emily Watson are superb as Liesel’s adoptive parents and Sophie Nelisse is cherubic in the lead role.

Rating:
3 out of 4. A sobering tale that somehow manages to be uplifting at the end. Highly recommended.

A few years ago a movie entitled The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) dared to show the holocaust through the eyes of a young boy. Here we see similar atrocities through the perceptions and experiences of a young girl. Though their family situations are vastly different, the children in both movies are exposed to the horrors of the systematic extermination of the Jews during WWII. Amid book burning bonfires and blitzkrieg bombings, it’s really the story of how these characters cope with the exigencies and uncertainties of the turbulent times in which they live. And, of course, if we’re talking characters, we’re also referring to the actors who portray them. Even though the temperaments of Liesel’s adoptive parents are vastly different, they’re both charming in their own way. Though Rush and Watson bring their characters to life with requisite brilliance, it’s Nelisse who steals the show as the endearing ingénue at center stage for most of the movie. Liesel’s wide-eyed wonder and innocence is an effective and poignant counterpoint to the often bleak and tragic events of the film…a film that’s not to be missed.

Sarah's Key (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas
July 2011

Sarah’s Key begins as a holocaust film and quickly transforms into a decades-spanning missing person mystery. On the face of it, such a radical thematic shift would threaten to produce an uneven film and run the risk of frustrating or confusing the audience. However, Sarah’s Key is executed with such precision, and such a streamlined through line, that tonal variations merely serve as variegated patterns against which the bracing drama unfolds.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays a contemporary journalist who’s writing an article about the heinous events that took place in France on July 16, 1942—Jews living in France were ripped from their homes and shipped off to internment camps. A narrative device, employed with near-clockwork precision in the film, is the cutting back and forth between present and past, which gradually brings both timelines to meaningful intersections and resolutions. Part of the thrill of this story structure is that the audience learns clues right alongside Thomas as she continues peeling back the layers to learn the secret of one detained French family, and their courageous daughter…the eponymous ingénue.

The early stages of the film, particularly the unsanitary living conditions the Jews were forced to endure while being held captive inside a stadium, are a bit rough to watch. Still, the most graphic scene here doesn’t even come close to the horrific tableaus displayed in
Schindler’s List. Even though what is suggested in the scenes is generally worse than what is actually shown, those with weaker stomachs are advised to take caution.

The mystery surrounding Sarah’s key is revealed about midway through the film and the balance of the story deals with the ramifications of Sarah’s fateful decision. Though the movie is a bit leisurely at times, the frequent trips to the past keep the story moving along, never allowing us to loose interest. However, the scenes involving Thomas’ personal life,
a la her foundering marriage, serve as a detraction and distraction from the main purpose of the story and feel a bit like the earnest character moments frequently featured in Lifetime movies. The modern story here isn’t nearly as compelling as past events, a narrative condition that also plagued Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia.

Thomas certainly can’t be faulted for the movie’s soap opera moments; she makes the most out of what she’s given. In addition to her sumptuously understated performance, Thomas deftly delivers English and French dialog in a challenging bilingual role. Appearing only in the last quarter of the film is Aidan Quinn, whose character helps Thomas assemble the puzzle of Sarah’s life. Though his screen time is limited, Quinn, like a good anchor man, really brings it home with a finely attenuated performance, fraught with nuance and genuine emotion.

Even though American audiences may only be familiar with Thomas and Quinn, the rest of the cast is rounded out by some terrific French actors. As such, roughly half the movie features French speaking with English subtitles, so fair warning for those with an aversion to foreign films. However, it’s my sincere hope that subtitles won’t dissuade potential viewers from watching this superbly crafted, acted and scripted film, which makes salient observations on the finer and baser aspects of the human condition.

Sarah’s Key illustrates how the best of intentions can have dire outcomes when waylaid by evil designs. Though frequently bittersweet, Sarah’s Key is a deeply moving film rife with profound sadness and shame over the atrocities committed against scores of innocent people. But, as the film implies more than preaches, hope can arise from the ashes of tragedy and provide a better life for future generations, so long as we never forget the lessons of the past. After all, as the film dramatically illustrates, “We’re all a product of our history.”

Rating: 3

Valkyrie (PG-13)

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Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Tom Cruise
December 2008

“Riveting Slice of WWII History Hits Its Target”


A decorated, raven-haired soldier walks into a room filled with debating officers, surreptitiously places a handbag under the conference table and slowly backs out of the room. A few minutes later, the building explodes behind the escaping soldier. Inside the burning building are the strewn bodies of the chancellor and his top military advisors. Hitler is dead!

Sounds like a fictional story, right? Like they say, truth is often stranger than fiction. In reality, the above incident, dubbed Operation: Valkyrie, was just one of several failed assassination attempts made on the fuhrer’s life. The new movie based on this pulse-pounding chapter in World War II history is titled
Valkyrie and is directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men).

The soldier in charge of the Valkyrie mission was Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a German officer with divided loyalties, willing to risk it all in order to end the tyranny of the 3rd Reich. In the movie, Stauffenberg is played by Tom Cruise, a dubious choice at first mention but a casting coup upon further reflection (take a look at the astoundingly similar side-by-side profile photos of Stauffenberg and Cruise at this film’s wikipedia page). Cruise, known for action roles more than psychological dramas, turns in a fine performance as the conscience driven soldier who can no longer stand by and allow Hitler’s atrocities to continue unimpeded. Cruise is surrounded by a dizzying array of A-list talent that’s essentially a who’s who of accomplished British actors, including: Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard and Bernard Hill.

Although the set-up is a tad slow at times, the story starts to snowball once the assassination plot is formulated and set into motion. There’s a good deal of political intrigue and nail-biting suspense throughout, and the execution of the plan is an exercise in high anxiety. There’s bound to be a Murphy’s Law factor to any set of “best laid plans,” but the stakes here are impossibly high for Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators: failure is tantamount to death. The drama reaches edge-of-your-seat intensity when the mission starts to unravel and Stauffenberg is forced to make choices that will eventually seal his fate.

A few months before seeing this film, I watched a documentary on the subject entitled
Operation Valkyrie: The Stauffenberg Plot to Kill Hitler. With the accurate details of the actual mission fresh in mind from this presentation, I went into the movie expecting to find the usual fact fudging or creative embellishments that accompany far too many big screen adaptations of true historical stories these days. I must admit to being impressed and pleasantly surprised by Singer’s and writing duo Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s painstaking adherence to the recorded facts from the real-life account.

Singer’s attention to historical accuracy also extends to the movie’s finely mounted production elements, which populate every inch of the big screen in
Valkyrie. Sets, props and costumes are all period appropriate and draw the audience into Stauffenberg’s world with their authenticity; noticeable flaws or inconsistencies would similarly take the audience out of the movie’s mesmerizing action. The virtually identical reconstruction of the Wolf’s Lair sets is awe-inspiring and many of the scenes in Berlin and the German forest were shot at the exact same locations where the actual events took place.

It’s a testament to the arresting events of the factual story that it can so effectively sustain viewer interest throughout its two hour running time. Likewise, it’s a testament to Singer’s unwavering vision—which has realized the Stauffenberg plot in exacting detail while also adding the visual urgency and narrative expediency befitting a big screen adaptation of such a crucial chapter of WWII history—that the story works at all in its cinematic form. Those who go in expecting all-out action (and the casting of Cruise is certainly disingenuous on this account) will surely be disappointed by this psychologically and politically complex docu-drama, but for those who can sit through the denser intrigue in favor of its suspenseful action scenes will find a film that educates while it entertains. If only there had been more men of conviction like Stauffenberg to stamp out the evil and injustices committed in our generation. If only…

Rating: 3

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (PG-13)

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Directed by: Mark Herman
Starring: Asa Butterfield
November 2008

“Chilling, Childs-eye View of the Holocaust”


Many who see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas will describe it as Schindler’s List through the eyes of a child. Though essentially accurate, the statement is oversimplified and quickly unravels when minor comparisons between the two films give way to vast differences in perspective, style, narrative, scale and tone. Schindler’s List told the true tale of a German altruist who saved hundreds of Jews from the horrors of concentration camps. By contrast, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fictional story that focuses on a German lad’s forbidden friendship with a Jewish boy of the same age; the two are separated by status, race and an intervening electric fence. The epic is exchanged for the intimate in this short and somber holocaust film, written and directed by Mark Herman. Taking into account the above variations in form, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has left its own indelible mark on the most dire and dismal subcategory of World War II films.

The movie opens with a German family moving from Berlin to a mansion in the countryside. The father, Ralph (David Thewlis in a masterful turn as a duty-bound German soldier), has been reassigned as the commandant of the nearby concentration camp. Ralph’s son, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), resents having left his friends behind and is perpetually bored, spending much of his time in a tire swing. One day, Bruno’s innate curiosity and insatiable desire to explore the natural world gets the better of him and he blazes a trail into the neighboring wood; Bruno eventually happens upon a barbwire fence, behind which sits a young boy clothed in what Bruno perceives as striped pajamas. Bruno introduces himself and discovers that the young boy’s name is Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). Shmuel’s striped shirt has a patch with numbers on it, which Bruno mistakenly thinks is used in some kind of game. Bruno inundates Shmuel with questions about the camp, the strange looking “farmers” that work there, and why it smells so bad when smoke is billowing out of two nearby chimneys. Upon learning that Shmuel is trapped inside the fence, Bruno incredulously asks, “Are you not allowed out? Why? What have you done?” Shmuel simply replies, “I’m a Jew.”

Bruno’s confusion regarding his newfound Jewish friend intensifies when Bruno’s tutor tells him, “If you ever found a nice Jew, you’d be the best explorer in the world.” Befriending Shmuel becomes even harder to justify when Bruno’s sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), refers to Jews as “evil, dangerous vermin.” Turning to his father for answers to his burning questions, Bruno is told that Jews aren’t even human.

It’s hard to imagine that such racial epithets and derogatory remarks could be made by members of a civilized society, especially by a race of people so preoccupied with proving their own superiority. As difficult as it is for adults to fathom the atrocities committed by Nazis, the holocaust makes even less sense to children. Bruno simply can’t comprehend why his friend is made to endure harsh conditions or abusive treatment from Nazi soldiers. The movie’s climax is a heartrending chain of events that culminates in a shocking conclusion guaranteed to leave you, and the rest of the audience, in stunned silence.

Based on the novel by John Boyne, Herman’s script somehow manages to conjure up complex emotions from within its simple structure. Herman doesn’t overstate his case, but allows his superb cast to carry the story forward in organic, realistic ways: Thewlis and Vera Farmiga, who plays Bruno’s mother, are perfectly matched as a couple polarized by the unthinkably inhuman deeds being undertaken at the camp. Farminga delivers one of the finest crying scenes ever committed to film, and the look on Thewlis’ face at movie’s end says far more than an elaborate monologue ever could.

Though told on a much smaller canvas than most holocaust films,
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is just as effective. As the screen gradually fades to black, in one of the slowest dissolves in motion picture history, the horrific tableau of a gas chamber forms ghost images in our eyes; a haunting reminder of the unconscionable activities that took place in Nazi concentration camps. There’s no reconciliation here; just grim reality. The only happy ending that can be derived from the film is a personal determination to never again allow such heinous crimes to be visited upon any race of people. Due to a few graphic scenes, the film isn’t recommended for children, but is strongly encouraged for teens and adults as a sobering reminder of this dark chapter in human history.

Rating: 3

Joyeux Noel (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christian Carion
Starring: Diane Kruger
March 2006

“Inspiring True Account of History’s Most Miraculous Truce”


Based on the incredible true story of the night peace and good will visited the trenches of French, Scottish and German soldiers during WWI, Joyeux Noel (aka Merry Christmas) chronicles the events surrounding history’s most astonishing ceasefire. On Christmas Eve, 1914, a German tenor started singing “Silent Night” and, upon recognizing the sacred Christmas carol, French and Scottish soldiers added their voices to the multicultural chorus from across the blood-soaked, corpse-littered battlefield. A miraculous event transpired when white flags ascended and soldiers from both sides descended upon the soiled plain; soon mortal enemies were communicating with each other (with only gestures in some cases), trading valuables and proudly showing off pictures of loved ones.

At the conclusion of a solemn Latin mass officiated by a Scottish priest, the three leaders had a summit and mutually agreed to lay down arms and sort out the fallen soldiers the next day. On Christmas day, one soldier ironically observed, “We’re burying the dead on the morning when Christ was born.” The day after Christmas presented a perplexing challenge as many of the soldiers on both sides struggled with resuming combat—men with whom they had played a friendly game of kickball the day before were now lined up in their crosshairs. Having seen the face of the enemy, many were reticent or flat-out refused to fight.

The irony of the story is how perspective can paint or taint our reality. For many of the soldiers, once the floodgates of friendship and mutual understanding had been flung aside, there could be no going back to the clear-cut, good guys/bad guys patriotism that prevailed in their home countries. The repercussions of treating the enemy with the tiniest shred of humanity were severe—most of the soldiers were sent home in disgrace, branded as traitors and replaced by fresh troops who were all too eager to raise the Sword of the Lord against the unholy hoard that was the German army. Though this makes for a bittersweet ending,
Joyeux Noel, as a whole, is uplifting and inspirational, and the movie’s salience, in light of current events, is profound.

Despite the exemplary effort exhibited by the costuming, props and art departments, the movie suffers from slow pacing and static direction from writer/director Christian Carion, especially in the early goings. The only familiar face among the cast is Diane Krugger (
National Treasure), who plays Anna Sorensen, an opera singer and wife of the German soldier who initiates “Silent Night.” The rest of the cast is comprised of foreign actors who adequately inhabit their roles with three standout performances: the singing German soldier, the French commander and the Scottish priest, who is the beneficiary of the best lines in the movie.

Joyeux Noel will undoubtedly find its place among the vast catalog of seasonal treasures, but the movie will be remembered more for its political commentary than for its Christmas-related story elements, which, though vitally important, comprise a very small part of the overall plot. They say music is the universal language, and if sworn enemies can find fellowship and common ground in the midst of the hellish realities of war, the adage is supremely accurate.

Rating: 3

King Arthur (PG-13)

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Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Clive Owen
July 2004

“Disney Revises History…Again”


The opening of the movie posits the notion that King Arthur was alive during the twilight of the Roman Empire and that he was half-Roman and half-Briton.  This historical twist is based on newly discovered documents (okay!) that reveal Arthur was alive earlier than generally supposed, as much as a thousand years before the medieval period.  Who knew?

The story follows Arthur and his band of scrappy warriors as they fight for their lives and their freedom from Rome; they have one final assignment and then they will receive their papers, but the simple mission goes south when an army of nasty Saxons shows up.  A portion of the army chases Arthur, his men and some villagers across an icy lake, and as fate and Hollywood would have it, the ice breaks and swallows most of the Saxons and none of Arthur’s men...or the scantily-clad Guinevere (Keira Knightley), who seems unaffected by the arctic conditions (more on her later).

There's a final standoff between the main Saxon army and Arthur, who rides onto the battlefield alone (he has a host of primitive Ewoks, I mean, Woads waiting in the forest under the command of non-magical Merlin).  The climactic battle goes through the motions and tries to wow the audience with gee whiz effects, but the action is static and turns
King Arthur into just another excuse to update a classic tale with modern special effects, just because we can.

Even despite the historical paradigm shift, there are way too many anachronisms in
King Arthur that detract from the overall purpose of the movie and distract the audience with unnecessary silliness.  Take potty-mouthed Sir Bors (Ray Winstone), for instance.  Although he provides some much-needed levity, his speech and mannerisms don't match a man of that time period, especially one of Arthur's handpicked champions.  Or how about the witch-doctor version of Merlin, who leads a band of hairy, wild Woads (Caucasian aborigines) into battle beside Arthur?  And what about Guinevere?  In this version of the Arthurian legend, she's less like the traditional princess and more like an Amazon woman, adorned with one, narrow strip of leather across her chest.  Are we sure these newly discovered historical documents aren't really Xena re-runs?

Other than Knightley, the only other familiar name in the cast is Clive Owen (
Beyond Borders).  Owen's Arthur is a courageous man of faith, but sometimes his delivery is too stuffy and dispassionate.  All in all, King Arthur will be an epic disappointment to anyone who isn't a Knightley fan.

Rating: 2

The Alamo (PG-13)

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Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Dennis Quaid
April 2004

“Memorable Remake of Historic Tale”


Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett? Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston?? No major female actor anywhere in the cast??? On the face of it, this modern take on the centuries-old massacre seems a bit underpowered and a tad ill timed. Amid the deluge of epic pictures this last fall (The Last Samurai, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), The Alamo was pushed back to this spring. Unfortunately for The Alamo, fervor for epics has sublimated a great deal since December, but will undoubtedly be rekindled with the upcoming Troy and King Arthur. It’s too bad that The Alamo was released during the lull period, because it is a solid effort.

There’s very little departure from the actual, historical events, which is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that
The Alamo isn’t “cutesy” and doesn’t succumb to radically re-writing history like so many other modern “period” pieces. The curse is that the movie feels like a glorified History Channel special; a sterile, stagnant time capsule, not a living, breathing entity. The movie stays on the fringes of the action and never really accesses the visceral emotions of the tragedy. What made blockbusters like Titanic and Pearl Harbor successful is that they introduced original characters into the action and we, as the audience, experienced the historical event through the eyes of these fictitious characters. This made us feel as if we were right there with them, becoming a part of history in a very exciting and frightening way. This storytelling style has a bigger emotional payoff if it’s executed properly, but also runs the risk of being rejected by the public and lambasted by critics.

For better or worse,
The Alamo remained faithful to the original cast of characters, without introducing any new ones. The advantage to this approach is name recognition: we’re all familiar with names like Davy Crockett, James Bowie (Jason Patrick) and Gen. Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria). The disadvantage is that there’s very little character development that can be presented outside of what we’ve already learned in history books. In the movie we see Bowie proudly display his patented knife and hear Crockett play a fiddle, and that’s nearly the extent of all character development in the picture. The only real character growth involves a lesser-known character, Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson), who comes of age after being christened the new fort commander.

All in all,
The Alamo is entertaining and is a great reminder of the sacrifices that were made so that we can enjoy freedom today…especially in the Lone Star state. However, it remains to be seen if audiences and critics will remember The Alamo.

Rating: 3

Gods and Generals (PG-13)

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Directed by: Ronald F. Maxwell
Starring: Stephen Lang
February 2003

Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Robert Duval, Mira Sorvino, Kevin Conway, C. Thomas Howell, Bruce Boxleitner, Billy Campbell; the list of fine actors in the excellent ensemble cast goes on and on and on…much like the movie itself. Weighing in at three hours and forty-five minutes,
Gods and Generals is, perhaps, too painstaking in its attention to historical detail—the pacing is a somnambulating lumber and huge sections of the story consist of exceedingly dry narrative. Under Ron Maxwell’s direction, the movie feels like a high-dollar documentary, lacking any kind of synergy; even the paint-by-numbers battle sequences are static (the only exception is when Daniels’ Lt. Col. Chamberlain is prone on the battlefield, frozen in fear as cannon balls and wounded soldiers fall around him all night long). All of Ted Turner’s money (and even a cameo by the financial mogul) couldn’t hoist the movie out of the slough of mediocrity. By movie’s end, I didn’t care which side won the battle; I just wanted a good, long stretch and some fresh air.

Rating: 2