Argentina 1985 (2022)
How does one adjudicate a country’s own nightmare and find justice? That was the situation Argentina found itself in after returning to a democratic state following seven years under a military junta that kidnapped, tortured, interrogated, and killed thousands of its own citizens in the guise of “stopping radical communists.” Argentina 1985 gives you its setting in the title but it’s really about the chief prosecutor (Ricardo Darin) trying to hold the top generals accountable for their crimes against humanity. There is a lot riding on this case and plenty going against him, including near-constant death threats for he and his supportive family. There are some very harrowing personal accounts in the movie, but it’s set up almost like an underdog courtroom drama conceived by Aaron Sorkin, and much is made about putting together the young hotshot team and seizing the day. The movie is swiftly paced for being over two hours and has notable comic relief to keep things from getting too overwhelmingly gloomy given the subject matter. However, Argentina 1985 never loses its focus on making the powerful account for their sins. It’s a rousing courtroom drama with piercing details, engrossing human stories, and the temerity of history. In the light of rising authoritarian movements around the world and even in the U.S., this movie has even more urgent political relevancy about making sure the crimes of government officials are accounted for and that justice is served. It’s a testament to the heroism of everyday citizens and it makes for an invigorating drama that doesn’t lose sight of the big picture amidst the plethora of procedural details.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Purple Hearts (2022)
When Netflix’s small-scale romantic drama Purple Hearts debuted during the summer of 2022, it over-performed and proved more popular than other much more high-profile Netflix releases at that same time, namely the headline-grabbing, and very bad, 365 Days franchise. Purple Hearts styles itself as a would-be Nicholas Sparks novel dripping with sudsy sentimentality and enemies-to-lovers swoon, but it’s really more an indictment of the “both sides” false equivalency befalling our modern political discourse, and in trying to find a safe middle, the movie ends up failing to hold one character accountable at all while forcing the other to completely bend over backwards for a moral and ethical re-education.
Cassie (Sofia Carson) works at a California dive bar and dreams about being a singer. She also suffers from diabetes and cannot afford her life-saving medicine. Luke (Nicholas Galtizine) is an enlisted soldier about to leave for his first tour of duty in Iraq. They can’t stand each other and yet both agree to enter into a fraudulent relationship and get married for the military benefits. Then Luke comes home early to recover from an injury, and he and his phony wife have to play pretend to keep their benefits and keep Luke out of the cross-hairs of being dishonorably discharged. Can these two crazy kids with opposing political views actually fall in love for real?
The title isn’t just a reference to the military award given to the wounded, it’s also an indication of the movie’s attempted ideology, that this red conservative boy and this blue city gal can come together and find harmony. For the first hour, this idea is drilled into the viewer’s head, that these two are an example of the polarization of modern American politics and neither is willing to cede an inch. Except that’s not true at all, especially as the movie plays out. The premise almost sounds like a comedic farce that probably would have been more entertaining. This isn’t a story about two people butting heads and then finding common ground and learning the error of misconception. Let me give you some examples, dear reader, how Purple Hearts is not a “meet in the middle” romance and more of an unhealthy erasure of a vocal woman’s ideals.
Each person has an impetus for getting into this sham marriage. Cassie cannot afford her insulin with no health care. Luke has little money and owes an old friend/drug dealer he’s trying to leave behind. First off, these scenarios are not equal. Cassie’s is an indictment on our broken health-care system that pushes so many to the margins of desperation. It’s also an indictment on the price-gouging of insulin, which according to the Mayo Clinic costs ten times more in the United States than “any other developed nation,” and on unchecked corporate greed. Cassie’s dilemma speaks to the vulnerable underclass being ignored. Now take Luke, who vaguely owes some money for vague reasons to his former dealer. It’s a reminder of Luke’s past as an addict. However, this threatening dealer is the only reminder of his past addiction; Luke doesn’t struggle with temptation or relapsing, even after he gets seriously injured in the line of duty. His struggles are not on the same level as Cassie, and maybe that’s because the military has saved Luke. His own father was ready to disown his rebellious boy but when Cassie informs dear angry dad about his son’s enlistment, he softens and invites her inside his home to speak. By this standard, it’s even more curious why Luke is still in debt to his former friend. He’s already gone through his basic training, he’s already heading overseas, so surely he would already have some benefits of being in the military and possibly pay off his dealer (I looked up boot camp pay and it varies but it’s also pretty minimal). Also, his problem is a one-time payment away from resolve whereas hers is a lifetime of need. I’m admittedly coming at this from an outsider, but one of these people seems to have problems that are social ails, and currently dealing with a medical crisis, and the other is past his crisis and would likely be well suited to resolve his scenario.
Now let’s speak about what each of them gives up through this relationship. They take turns trading insults, Luke calling her a “snowflake” and denigrating her mother being an “illegal,” while Cassie insults Luke for being “blindly obedient,” which is kind of expected in the military. After they are sham married and go out with Luke’s squad, one of his peers makes a toast about going over to Iraq and “hunt me some Arabs.” Cassie looks appalled but says nothing. This friend of Luke’s then pointedly asks if Cassie has a problem with him, and she very reasonably says she has a problem with his racism and conflating all Arabs as one monolithic group to target, and this guy sneers and mocks her about using pronouns. After a couple more heated misogynistic comments, Luke intervenes… by asking Cassie to sit down and shut up. Excuse me? She was uncomfortable from an outburst of racism, was mocked for this, while also bearing the insult the idea of simply empathy with pronouns, and then she’s the problem? This scene is indicative of the movie’s entire approach to the political divide. It serves up easy points by playing upon stereotypes of how liberals are perceived (Cassie didn’t even know the U.S. was still in Iraq), and its lazy insults against liberals are even weaker and more strained (pronouns… really?). It all lays the foundation for what is Cassie’s transformation, for her to realize the error of her ways, and accept Luke on his own terms. Except this admission is never given to her as well. He doesn’t accept her until she starts to adopt his way of thinking, and writes songs about the brave sacrifices of those serving, a perspective I guess she never could have come to on her ignorant own.
As I was watching Purple Hearts, I kept thinking how disposable the entire first hour was, which sets up our couple, their warring viewpoints, and their marriage of convenience. It’s at the hour mark where the real movie begins, with Luke coming home injured and forcing the couple to see one another in a new light. I thought about how the movie could have opened with Cassie getting a phone call about her husband and his injury, then meeting him at the hospital and the great ironic turn that could have registered as we find out for the first time that this happy union is only transactional. This is where the drama really starts, and the proceeding hour is just back-story that could have been supplied throughout in small scenes or dialogue. The crux of the movie is how these characters are meant to change the more time they spend with one another. The first hour is about them meeting and then Luke going overseas into combat. It’s easy to keep up a ruse when the other person is half a world away. When he returns, that’s where the real challenge begins, and that’s where I feel the movie should have begun. I’m also a bit shocked how unimportant Luke’s injury is in the grand scheme of things. He recuperates fairly fast and it shockingly doesn’t force him to reconsider himself through the new physical challenge. It’s as if the injury is merely a plot device to excuse him from active combat. It’s quite disappointing that being physically disabled doesn’t allow Luke needed personal reflection, rethinking his prioritization on his strength and value as a warrior, the version of himself he remodeled to escape a life of addiction. The final hour needed to be expanded for better character development, and both sides of this romance needed introspection for it to be rewarding.
The other miss of the movie is with the absent chemistry of its leads. Carson is best known as the “other girl” from the Disney Channel tween Descendants franchise, and she ably sings throughout the movie, which feels positioned as her re-introduction to older audiences and perhaps a platform for her own songwriting. The songs that Cassie finds viral success are genuinely… fine. They all sound a bit like the same, though even when the song plays as a ballad, Carson is jumping around the stage, kicking her legs, and swinging her arms in wild whirlwinds like it’s a rocker. The tonal dissonance is unintentionally funny. Galitzine (Cinderella) really gets the short end. I’ve seen him sing convincingly, be charming, and in Purple Hearts he’s just six feet of condescension. His character is an angry glare as a person. Even when he’s re-learning to use his legs, the character doesn’t come across as humbled, only more irritated by the inconvenience. These two never develop a palpable spark, so given the insufficient characterization and lack of romantic grounding, the disinterest is instead palpable.
If you’re an easy sucker for pretty people falling in love under sunset-dabbled skies and set to gentle music, I’m sure Purple Hearts will work its would-be charms. I found the characters to be annoying, the structure to be lopsided and in need of jettisoning the first half, and the overall treatment of an outspoken woman calling out racism and misogyny as a problem needing fixing as disappointing and unfair. There are so many plot elements here that could have made this a more compelling drama, like Luke’s past with drug addiction, surely something that could have been a dangerous return with his recovery from injury necessitating pain killers. It’s a movie reportedly about sacrifice but the way I saw it only one character undergoes change to satisfy their romantic partner, and in turn the audience. Purple Hearts is a misguided romance that never goes beyond its thin stereotypes and one-sided demands.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Jennifer Lawrence has been in four movies since 2017, so the once ubiquitous Oscar-nominated actress is getting more selective with her film roles, so now with each role the question becomes what made this project the one. Causeway is a fairly straightforward drama following Lynsey (Lawrence), a soldier who is recovering from her traumatic brain injury and ensuing memory loss. She’s stateside and living back in her hometown and trying to speed through physical therapy to re-enlist back to the life she knows but may not be equipped to handle. This is definitely a character piece but I don’t know if there’s enough interesting material here with these characters. Causeway is one of those indie dramas that lean into a lot of contemplative staring, which could be very meaningful if I felt like I had been given access to the characters internal dilemmas beyond a general assessment. Much of the movie follows Lynsey’s friendship with a local mechanic, James (Brian Tyree Henry), who has his own tragic past that he’s trying to come to terms with. The movie is at its best when they’re sharing time together and it begins to feel like an introspective hangout movie that will allow both of these people to let down their guards and develop. It moves in starts and stops but Causeway never feels like it gets anywhere fast or that transcendent. By the end, the journey doesn’t feel earned. Lawrence is good, though rather restrained, as the movie fills much of its time with her long pensive stares. There’s a movie here, for sure, but nobody feels in a hurry to uncover it. It’s a perfectly “nice movie” but one that underwhelms because it feels too afraid of pushing too hard or delving too far, for that would betray some artistic ode of “realism.” Causeway is a minimal, plaintive drama with much left unsaid, but what is said and honestly dealt with is compelling enough to make me wish I could trade in the many stares for more words spoken by these talented thespians.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
Until just the other day, I had never seen Top Gun. Growing up in the 80s into the 90s, I was familiar with the film as it was a staple in friends’ homes, as was the lousy Nintendo video game, and one of the major pillars of Tom Cruise becoming a superstar, but I was too young when it came out and then it got buried behind other movies I always intended to catch up with. Honestly, as I got older, I just didn’t have much interest in rote military thrillers the likes of Tom Clancy (I dub them “dad movies,” as they’re my father’s long-standing Clancy-loving preference). Then came the 2022 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, and it became Cruise’s highest-grossing movie of his blockbuster career and the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time. I’m probably one of the last few people on the planet to finally catch Maverick and I’m a little befuddled what made this movie as highly praised, to the point where it’s a given it will be nominated for Best Film awards and even stands as populist chance of winning. Maverick is a perfectly enjoyable action movie with satisfying character arcs. It’s an example of what big-budget moviemaking can accomplish when the right artists are aligned. However, let’s not start jumping on any couches and going nuts here. It’s a solid sequel elevated by a great finish.
We follow Maverick, a.k.a. Pete Mitchell (Cruise), as he’s tasked with training the next generation of top guns for a very specific, highly dangerous aerial assault mission to take out a foreign nuclear arms lab. The big issue is that one of these pilots, Rooster (Miles Teller), is the son of Maverick’s former wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died in the 1986 original movie. Mav has been denying Rooster senior-level opportunities out of fear of being responsible for the death of father and son, but Rooster will not be ignored and denied, and they’ll square their feelings of guilt and resentment over the course of this impossible mission.
I can see why this movie would be successful. It plops our older hero down in a teaching role which allows the satisfying arc of building a team, gaining his own feet as a teacher, and the two-way transmission of respect. It’s a formula that works. We watch the younger pilots grow and become more capable, we watch Maverick settle into a natural teaching role, reaching out to others, and we also watch him and his team stick it to the naysaying Naval authority with every victory. It’s all there and developed with enough precision by screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Singer Warren, and Cruise-lifeline Christopher McQuarrie to operate smoothly. In the 1986 movie, we had hotshot pilot Maverick learning personal responsibility and teamwork, though much of that original movie was preoccupied with so… many… characters telling young Mav how gosh darn special he really is and how the U.S. Navy needs him so bad. The emotional reconciliation also works between Maverick and Rooster (I guess the name and the mustache are affectionate odes to dear deceased dad) and serves as an effective emotional foundation for old fans and new. The drama works and the legacy elements and cameos feel better incorporated, though the “Great Balls of Fire” piano bar singalong was awkwardly forced nostalgia bait. The romance with Jennifer Connelly’s single mother barmaid even feels a little wiser and more honest rather than setting her up as a good-looking woman cheering our hero onward. Nobody’s going to leave the film citing the prerequisite love story as their favorite part, but it’s at least more thoughtful and less tacked-on than I was dreading. For all these reasons, Top Gun: Maverick has the tools to succeed as a sequel that can transcend its initial nostalgic fandom.
Where the movie really takes flight is in its action photography and the final act. Director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, Spiderhead) filmed the aerial sequences with IMAX cameras and the in-cockpit perspectives make the action far more immersive and thrilling. The actors were charged with being their own camera operators while flying in their planes, so Kosinski would wait on the ground and then review the footage and then send the actors back up in the air for further takes. It’s a painstaking process, made more so by Cruise’s obsessive insistence on making things as real as possible, and it pays off remarkably. The dazzling footage within the cockpits as they swoop and swerve has an exciting verisimilitude that can’t be replicated by computer effects. The dogfights are easy to understand and follow thanks to the careful visual orientation from Kosinski, smooth editing that doesn’t become jumbly, and clearly stated goals and mini goals within the mission training (McQuarrie is so good at this stuff). It made me wish that they never got out of the air. It also made me envious of the grandiose IMAX presentation.
It’s the final act that really seals the deal from an entertainment standpoint. The team tackles their mission at the 90-minute mark, and it’s thrilling and everything you’d want in an action set piece. The way the mission is structured in well-defined pieces working in tandem reminded me of the Mission: Impossible franchise during its 2010s swing into becoming the best studio action franchise. It makes for a satisfying and thrilling conclusion, and it’s not a real spoiler to say that the team of underdogs defies the great odds and succeeds, but then the movie surprised me. There was still twenty minutes left, and Top Gun: Maverick says, “Oh, you think we’re done? We’re not going to just give you a good climax, we’re going to give you a buffet of action peaks, each somehow elevating the movie even higher while still working with the established character arcs.” It is a feat of deft studio action construction. After the mission, there’s a personal behind-enemy-lines rescue and escape that literally hinges upon a recognition of nostalgia as intrinsic value. I won’t explain the exact particulars, but the characters literally survive relying upon the devices and training of old, surely a reassuring nod to the older generation audience members. It’s like the movie has taken Cruise’s penchant for showmanship to heart and wants to give you everything it can. The results are a good action movie flying off the charts by the end with a fantastic finish.
Still, it’s hard for me to join the cheering masses declaring Top Gun: Maverick as one of the best films of recent years. It’s slickly made, solid in its storytelling and emotional foundation to produce satisfaction, and it’s filmed with visual panache from its commitment to practical effects and realism. The final act is a fabulous sendoff that shows the heights of blockbuster popcorn cinema. Maverick is without a doubt the superior Top Gun movie. The original had its own sense of style from director Tony Scott, one that became synonymous as the visual vocabulary of Hollywood military thrillers for decades. It’s also hard to watch the movie in 2022 and not see the dozens and dozens of imitators that came after, making the movie feel less enticing and more simply the progenitor of a genre formula that isn’t my favorite to begin with. Maverick improves in every way and sheds the worries of being a late-sequel nostalgic cash-grab. It’s a good and effective movie with a rousing and uncommon finish, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe people are looking for something that feels like comfort food done right, and I suppose that could be Top Gun: Maverick for many, as the box-office numbers would chiefly indicate. I might not be in its inner fandom but I can see what others would celebrate, even if I do less.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Without Remorse (2021)
Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is Tom Clancy without Tom Clancy. It bears no resemblance to the famous author’s 1993 novel even though the entire production feels remorseless about being generic military thriller genre grist. There’s nothing to spark the imagination here, no signature action sequence or well developed turn of events, no colorful personalities or hissable villains. It’s all predictable from the opening credits onward, from the opening mission that cannot go according to plan, to the assumption of the short shelf-life for the pregnant wife in Act One, to the Obvious Red Herring Antagonist and the Obvious Real Antagonist played by the big name actor, to the presumptuous preparations for building a franchise in post-credit sequences. The best thing about Without Remorse is Michael B. Jordan as our lead Navy Seal seeking vengeance and climbing the ladder of international conspiracy. Jordan gives a far better performance than this material and movie deserves, always demanding your attention. He’s charismatic even in generic thrillers like this one, and it is the definition of a generic military thriller lost in the dull minutia of a thousand other similar movies. There’s really nothing separating this movie from the glut of direct-to-DVD action thrillers starring the likes of Bruce Willis (who filmed his part over a weekend). The motivation for the villain’s plot to kick-start another global war with Russia is laughable when there’s a ideological motivation within reach that would have worked and been interesting, namely declaring Russia already an enemy of the country and forcing those in power to fight the war they are ignoring. Instead, the stated rationale is so much dumber. If you’re a fan of these kinds of action thrillers, or the sub-genre that Clancy carved out for himself for decades, then you’ll likely find enough to pass the time with Without Remorse. It had glimmers where it could have stepped outside the mighty shadow of its influences. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this was starring Dolph Lundgren rather than Michael B. Jordan.
Nate’s Grade: C
False Flag (2019)
Imagine the U.S. government is rounding up citizens, detaining them, and robbing them of their rights with the idea of installing a system of fear and compliance. No, it’s not the news on abuses of power via unchecked bodies like ICE, this is the plot of False Flag, a low-budget found footage action movie that happened to film in Ohio and is now widely available online as well as being carried on your friendly neighborhood Wal-Mart shelf. I congratulate them on getting their movie out there to the masses. The finished film has some narrative and execution issues but can still be an enjoyable experience, especially for genre fans of military thrillers. Strap in.
We open with a fringe conspiracy host as the frame story, telling his audience what they’re about to see is real footage compiled together to indict the U.S. government. In the small Ohio town of Madison, brothers Mark (Sean Mount) and Ash (Justin Rose) are feuding with old grievances and new, including Mark getting married to Stephanie (Olivia Vadnais). Ash has brought along his YouTube-eager pal Donny (Andrew Yackel), who is obsessed with recording everything for his fledgling channel. Then all of a sudden there is a high-pitched shriek, military vehicles roll into town, and citizens and protestors alike are rounded up and beaten. Ash, Stephanie, and Donny seek shelter with a conspiracy journalist (Jennifer Andrada) and some local militiamen armed and ready to combat what they viewed as the eventual tyrannical government takeover. Over the course of one long night, our people try and escape and get their story told.
Before I go into further detail on some of the shortcomings of False Flag, allow me to highlight its positive aspects. This is a pretty good-looking movie for being a low-budget action thriller, and the cinematography has a nice color balance to many scenes. A race through a maze of school hallways at night is made all the moodier by the professional aesthetic, and many of the action scenes are pretty solid and staged well. The larger riot sequences and chaos that erupts are coordinated well with the background action giving way to whatever blocking our main characters need. The use of the military vehicles also helps lend to the credence of the “it could happen even here” reality. The acting overall is pretty solid without a bad performance. Surprisingly enough, writer/director Aaron Garrett (Foxcatcher) gives one of the more memorable performances as a local mechanic by day and would-be Rambo when called upon. The movie gets markedly more entertaining when he comes into the picture and is able to even the odds. He has a smoothness to his performance that grabs your attention. Yackel (Swamp Thing) has a pleasant presence and a squirrely demeanor that can be endearing. Andrada (Macabre Manor) stands out early as the on-location correspondent for the Alex Jones fringe TV show. She has an affectation that makes her talk very directly, quoting often, but it counts as a viable personality and a pointed perspective that helps butt up against others.
False Flag is the kind of movie that seems like its intended audience are the doomsday preppers and gun hoarders that envision themselves as a Hollywood action star waiting for the eventual government tyranny to give them their time in the spotlight. This premise can be done with skill but absent that it feels like a misguided wish fulfillment that encourages radical thinking in fringe people. I’m not saying the movie is irresponsible. I’m saying that False Flag exists in the same kind of universe of a “Jade Helm” takeover, where it only makes sense for the people who already think along these lines. At one point one character asks a prepper what’s in it for the government to perform its false flag operation, and he responds, “Global totalitarianism.” What does that even mean? Are the police acting in conjunction with the military? Have the military infiltrated the ranks of small-town police officers? It’s rather nebulous. All we know is that someone is taking over for vague reasons and there doesn’t seem to be enough of them.
Eventually it’s theorized that the government is doing this in a small-town to blame on terrorists and justify further military action. But… why is any of that necessary? The United States public has already accepted the idea of going after terrorists, especially on foreign soil and in the age of drone warfare. The U.S. military doesn’t need more public support to go after this already targeted target. If it’s to blame political activists as domestic terrorists, then this plan sure is sloppy. Nobody in Madison we see attempts to call for help, post their recordings, or even watch TV until seemingly hours after the start of the martial law, which is insane. It takes away from the seriousness if characters aren’t immediately trying to make outside connections. When the characters break into a school where prisoners are being detained in a cage (very reminiscent of our current concentration camps along the border) and there are NO GUARDS whatsoever in this room to watch. This is one incompetent government takeover. There is one moment that I had to stop the film and walk around my home because it simply astonished me (some spoilers to follow). The characters cut open a chain-link fence keeping people inside their detention cage… and the other people… stay put. I guess they realized what an important moment this would be to reunite the brothers and didn’t want to ruin it for the cameras. These people act with no urgency when they can flee, and I am still reeling from this moment.
The very ending tries to flip the script but by that point it feels too late and too confusing. I’m at a greater loss what the whole operation was for, who benefited, and who was playing along. There’s some ire toward media manipulation but it feels too late to switch gears with who the recipient of the film’s condemnation is going to be. There’s a five-minute epilogue that throws everything in doubt and leaves you questioning what you saw, but I don’t know what the supposed agendas are and who is playing who and why. Good luck.
The dialogue is pretty plain, which is fine, but its use of exposition is heavy and rather inarticulate. Exposition is a tricky issue because any writer needs to make it as invisible as possible and think about what is essential and when it can unfold to the audience in a hopefully natural manner. There are easy ways around this like the ole answering machine message that fills in the blanks. Here is a sample from about a half hour into False Flag after the first big riot with police:
Stephanie: “…So your mom’s a doctor?”
Little Girl: “Yeah, so, she’s not home that much. But it’s okay I guess.”
Stephanie: “What about your dad?”
Little Girl: “John… I don’t know. He works for the government as a translator or something like that. He and my mom split up while I was young. We were actually on our way to DC to meet him before all this.”
Little Girl: “Don’t be.”
Stephanie: “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Little Girl: “Nope.”
Stephanie: “Must be tough being alone all the time.”
Little Girl: “Not really. I grew up pretty fast.”
Stephanie: “I can see that. You’re a pretty strong girl. How long have you lived in Madison?”
Little Girl: “I know you feel like you have some responsibility to keep me safe or keep my mind off what happened but you don’t. I can take care of myself.”
This example stunned me with how transparent the exposition was, which forced characters to speak like they were more machines built to espouse helpful context. Real people do not blab everything about themselves in case someone may be watching who doesn’t know the key parts of their background. Real people do not talk like every moment is a job interview. The problem with False Flag is that there are too many scenes likes the one above, where characters vomit out the necessary info in such a transparently clunky way that it further breaks the film’s reality.
The found footage conceit provides more problems that are not addressed. Firstly, the nature of found footage means there has been a hidden editor and this is all the more relevant because the showcase for this footage is the Alex Jones-style show, which means someone has intended for it to be broadcast for an audience. This brings up the same questions of why the mysterious editor elected to install a narrative. Why is it important to set up these people like they are characters when the important parts, the government’s supposed false flag entry, is the big deal? Furthermore, why is this mysterious editor splicing in flashbacks from an earlier recording of the two brothers running around in a park? This was cleverly done in 2008’s Cloverfield but that’s because it was taped over a previously existing recording, allowing for the good times of a former relationship to sneak in for contrast. But if the intent is the broadcast and to highlight government abuse, why has the mysterious editor chosen again to bend toward a narrative?
Then there are things that simply break the reality of the found footage conceit, enough that they took me out of the movie and I had to start cataloguing them. The general idea is that we have Donny with a handheld camera and Ash with a body camera attached to his ear like a Bluetooth device, but you better believe every scene has the characters adequately framed, which means Ash is awfully cognizant of how he needs to turn and tilt his head in order to get a workable camera angle from his vantage point. When the camera gets passed to other characters, why do they continue recording? Ignoring even that since the movie needs it to carry on, there are moments that shatter the illusion of found footage, like one of those park flashbacks where we see Mark run into a clearing to help his brother and he sets the camera down not on the ground but on… something. When we saw him running there was no rocks, no trees, nothing to be seen, which means I have no idea what this camera is resting on. The most egregious is a conversation where the camera literally racks focus as the woman is talking. She doesn’t move out of her position and it happens even before she turns around, as if the camera KNEW the attention should be on the people in the distance who Donny was referring to. If you’re going to go the found footage route, things like this cannot crop up.
As far as low-budget action thrillers go, False Flag can sate your moderately checked expectations. It provides some thrills and with a professional presentation and uniformly solid acting. The story is pretty threadbare and the found footage conceit feels too minimally thought through, serving a larger point that ultimately is muddled by its rushed and twisty delivery. I think this premise and even the found footage approach could have been a dynamite combination, but it required a bit more development and consideration. False Flag is not a bad movie and I admire much of its technical grit but it is pretty standard thriller stuff, which means it’s hard for it to distinguish itself against the glut of other low-budget direct-to-DVD action lining the catalogues of streaming and shelves.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Aftermath (2019)
I am struggling to come up with something of substance to say about The Aftermath, an adequate drama with decent performances, handsome production design, and a boring love triangle. It’s set in the aftermath of World War Two Germany in the Allied-occupied stretch. Jason Clarke plays a British officer stationed in another man’s home, a wealthy German local (Alexander Skarsgard) who lost his wife in the war. Clarke’s wife (Keira Knightley) is anxious to go home, still processing her grief from losing her child during the war and her relationship with her distant husband seems irreparable. It’s only a matter of time before Knightley and Skarsgard find comfort in one another, and they do, almost absurdly quickly. The more interesting story is Clarke trying to keep a fragile peace in the ruins of bombed-out Germany while Nazi sympathetic elements conspire to form an insurgency against the remaining officers. Now that’s a movie I would watch. That’s a way more intriguing storyline, and one I’m sure chapter after chapter was filled with sprawling, conspiratorial detail in the novel by Rhidian Brook. Alas, we’re stuck with a pretty drab love affair between two pretty people. I didn’t feel any passion between them; it felt like they were acting by-the-numbers, and ultimately maybe that was what the director had in mind all along. I found my mind drifting away for long interludes, thinking about other movies, thinking about watching other historical dramas. The acting is pretty good all around. Knightley has a standout scene where she breaks down and reveals the full extent of her maternal grief and what it has done to her marriage. The Aftermath will be readily forgotten in its own aftermath, and I don’t think too many viewers will mourn.
Nate’s Grade: C
The 15:17 to Paris (2018)
Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler were three ordinary servicemen taking a train ride into Paris when they found themselves in the middle of an armed terrorist attack. The three men rushes into danger, disarmed and subdued the attacker, and treated the injured on the scene. The 15:17 to Paris is a big screen movie directed by Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) that tells their life stories played by the men themselves. It got some of the worst reviews of Eastwood’s storied career (mine won’t be better). There are two gigantic miscalculations when it comes to 15:17 to Paris: 1) having the real-life subjects play the adult versions of themselves, and 2) that there was enough material here to fill out an engaging, enlightening, fulfilling film experience.
I assumed telling this real-life story as a movie was going to be a challenge to produce enough meaningful material to eek out a feature-length running time, and within the first five minutes I knew that I was doomed. We’re sitting down to two single moms discussing their boys with their classroom teacher, and that teacher literally says, “If you don’t medicate them now they’ll just self-medicate later. Statistically, boys of single moms are more likely to have problems.” My response: “What the hell, lady?!” This character was obviously engineered, from her very foundation, to be a walking, talking point of exposition and disagreement. No real teacher would ever utter these words so callously. It was this rude awakening that made me realize what a terribly written slog I was in for. At no point were these supporting characters going to come across as authentic human beings. Instead, it’s a world populated by robots with bad social skills or unshakable faith played by familiar actors (Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, Jaleel White of all people). Also, what little kid has a Full Metal Jacket poster in his bedroom? Did he not understand what that movie was about?
These men can rightly serve as an inspiration, rising to the occasion in a true test of courage. No one will challenge the heroism. But what else is there to this story? The attack is presented as the framing device and as it plays out we segue into lengthy flashbacks about their lives leading up to this pivotal point in time. It’s just that these three men lived fairly uneventful, normal lives until finding themselves in a unique situation. We don’t seem to trace any significant, formative moments. Spending time with them as kids, then teens, and finally as adults doesn’t so much provide greater understanding of them as people as it does pad out the running time. We watch them get in trouble twice at school for not having a hall pass. We watch them watch football. We watch them endure training montages. We watch the trio tour the sights of Italy and eat gelato. We watch an Army team retrieve a backpack. We watch Spencer get demoted for not stitching properly. Seriously, this is given time. It’s not even until a full hour-plus into the movie before they confront the attack on the train.
Chronicling the lives of normal, real-life people under extraordinary circumstances is not by itself a fatal flaw, as evidenced by the masterful and mournful United 93. The power of empathy allows us to leap into a multitude of perspectives. However, with United 93 there was an ongoing story that could unfold because of the scope of events. There were developments, deadly complications, and the slow realization of what was happening, what was going to happen, and what needed to be done. With 15:17 to Paris, the attack is uncomplicated and over relatively quickly. There’s a reason Eastwood saves the train attack for the end because it cannot function as a sufficient movie plot on its own. Eastwood had a similar predicament with his previous film chronicling the heroism of the pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River. The plane crash was thrilling and Tom Hanks added some layers to the portrayal of a man uncomfortable with the spotlight. 15:17 to Paris doesn’t even have that much. It’s a tedious trek to an all-too swift climax.
The other large miscalculation was having the real-life actors portray themselves. These guys just are not actors. I suppose Eastwood felt the real-life figures would best understand the emotions of each scene, in particular the attack, but another approach would be simply teaching actors. The forced verisimilitude feels like a marketing gimmick meant to appeal to a select audience. Making things more difficult is that these guys just aren’t that interesting as subjects. Sure there are broad strokes of characterization applied here and there but it’s with very minimal effort (see above for some of the just-had-to-include plot moments). This is another reason actors would have been preferable, because these guys’ lives don’t have to be interesting for my benefit. Their lives were not destined to one day entertain me on the big screen. They can simply be normal people. On the other hand, watching normal people do normal, boring things without a more enriching sense of introspection, personalities, or depth is like being trapped watching someone else’s home movies on a loop. Spencer Stone performs the best of his buds but none of them should expect a second career as an in-demand thespian.
I feel bad saying this but I really just didn’t care, and that’s because the movie gave me no reason to do so here. Yes, these three men are heroes and their sense of normality might lend itself toward a larger theme about the everyday capabilities of heroism, but there isn’t enough here to make me care beyond the train attack. The screenwriting does not present them as multi-dimensional characters and perhaps that’s because of the guys’ limitations as actors, exacerbating a spiral that only makes 15:17 to Paris less involving as it chases after the idol of authenticity. Eastwood is known for being an economical filmmaker but it feels like he should have been even more judicious here. The adherence to strictly the facts strips the film of some of its larger emotional power. There’s far too much filler and not enough substance to balance out 90-plus minutes. You’ll grow restless. If there’s a lesson to be learned from The 15:17 to Paris, let it be that every story needs a reason to exist and, when in doubt, trust actors to deliver that story.
Nate’s Grade: C-
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
Michael Bay is the kind of filmmaker that naturally attracts negative attention and derision, so when he fast-tracked a movie about the Benghazi embassy attacks, and in a presidential election year too, there were plenty that cried foul. Bay’s not exactly known as the subtlest filmmaker, and many feared a Benghazi movie under his guidance would only reaffirm the worst. 13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (a subtitle that never appears in the movie, by the way) is a surprisingly serious and generally apolitical action movie that reaffirms the strengths and weaknesses of Bay as a filmmaker.
On September 11, 2012, an armed mob stormed an American outpost in Benghazi, an attack that left four Americans dead. After Libya had toppled its decades-long autocrat, a power vacuum emerged and militants filled its place. An unclassified CIA annex in Benghazi was established to track the possible sale of munitions from the old regime. The CIA chief, Bob (David Constabile), has been forced to hire a security team of former Army Rangers and Navy Seals to protect his agents. Jack Silva (John Krasinski) is a family man reuniting with his old pal Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), the head of the hired security team. The other guys (Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini) welcome Jack, explaining the rising tensions in Benghazi and how they’re generally frustrated by the CIA know-it-all attitudes. They’re wary of the State department outpost for Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), wary of the security detail watching him, and wary of the Libyan local forces providing assistance. Flash forward to the night of the attack and Rone and his team are stymied in their early attempts to rescue the ambassador. Afterwards, the focal point of the fight shifts to that very CIA annex and one hellish night of intense combat.
This is Bay’s return to the realm of more “serious filmmaking,” a world he hasn’t considered since 2001’s lackluster Pearl Harbor, and while the standard Bay elements of boom are present and accounted for, the drama doesn’t stack up to the action. First, the good news is that the action in 13 Hours is often thrilling, beautifully staged and photographed by Dion Beebe (Collateral), and unlike Bay’s Transformers films, easy enough to follow along. It’s a chaotic incident where plans and communication are broken down, but Bay is able to keep the geography and the immediate and secondary goals of each action sequence clear. While the storming of the embassy isn’t quite as nerve-racking as Argo, it’s still plenty thrilling and communicates the fog of war and dawning horror of those trapped on the inside. The centerpiece is the attack on the CIA annex, which both sides anticipate and prepare for. It establishes the geography of the field of combat, the different access points, and the most likely ambushes. From there, it’s our outnumbered professionals versus a horde of armed Libyans, a standoff reminiscent in classic Hollywood action cinema. Over the course of those titular 13 hours, our security force faces wave after wave of attacks, each once becoming more sophisticated and bringing heavier firepower. Bay’s camera captures the explosions and gunfire in his usual balletic decadence. Say what you will about the man and his jingoistic tendencies, but he’s an ace visual stylist who bathes a sheen of popcorn entertainment to visceral struggle. When the action is heated, that’s when 13 Hours packs its most powerful punch.
Unfortunately, there are lulls in between the fighting, and it’s during these moments that we realize how poorly written our characters are. With the battle looming ahead, the mitigated character development emphasizes easy clichés we’ve come to expect, like the family man who needs to realize his family should come first, etc. These six guys are little more than stock characters on the screen, differentiated more by appearance and the occasional reading material than any significant personality differences. The dialogue is also rather clunky, falling too often upon tough guy speak to make up the difference. The way I was able to separate them in my head was through the actors’ previous roles (“There’s Pornstash, there’s Roy from The Office, there’s the guy from The Pacific who was the bad guy in Iron Man 3, and boy did Jim from The Office get buff”). Krasinski (Aloha) is the audience’s entry point into this world and given the most attention, so he’s ostensibly our main protagonist. He’s a strong presence to anchor the film despite the character’s shortcomings. I enjoyed watching Krasinski in such a different sort or role and started thinking about he and his wife, Emily Blunt, must have traded workout regiment advice. “Jim from The Office” with a six-pack is a surprising sight.
There’s a strange defining conflict for the first hour of the movie, namely Bay and Hogan narrowing personal clashes down to a slobs vs. snobs mentality of war. Bay has a history of fetishizing machismo and military hardware, so it should be no surprise that his movie lionizes the beefy, strapping military men serving as security. They’re placed against the eggheads of the CIA, who take every moment to remind our burly, bearded security guys that they were educated at Ivy League schools and know so much more about the Middle East. They often sound haughty when they’re scolding the security force for interfering even when it’s clear they’re saving their lives. The perspective aligns with the idea that the military-experienced, no-nonsense men of action are being ignored and looked down upon by the CIA ninnies who look at them as unnecessary babysitters. Naturally, with the hindsight of history, we know the concerns of Rone and his guys will be vindicated and the CIA snobs will be grateful they had these blue-collar American heroes. The entire role of Bob is to condescend and ignore our guys and their warnings. Bob even says early in his introduction that he’s on the brink of retirement and they won’t ruin it for him. Until the attack on September 11, we’re stuck with this reductive class warfare clash.
Another interesting aspect is that the movie makes use of its audience’s relative ignorance when it comes to the specific people involved in the Benghazi firefight. I doubt that many people know the names of the four victims excluding Ambassador Stevens. Because of that uncertainty we don’t know which of our six security characters will live, and the screenplay seems to know this, which is why it takes time to present each of the six with some sort of looming tragic back-story. We have multiple characters sending loving messages to their young children, learning they’re wife is pregnant, and making all sorts of “final” decisions, the kind that set up these characters in most movies for an early demise (if you write your girl during war or talk about your post-retirement plans, you’re guaranteed to die). I was slightly amused that the movie established each character to have a moment where it potentially sets up this tragic outcome.
One of my big questions walking into Bay’s Benghazi movie was exactly whose version of events was the story going to follow. After eight congressional investigations, and a prominent Republican slipping by admitting one of the guiding purposes is to tarnish Hilary Clinton as a presidential candidate, I was worried that the movie was going to be a hacky, manipulative promotion of propaganda. There’s a reason that eight congressional investigations, including one that has lasted longer than Watergate, don’t seem to satisfy those calling for blood: they keep coming to the same inconvenient conclusions, namely that there was no stand down order, no conspiracy, no cover-up. There’s been a flurry of rightwing fury brewed over stoking unfounded rumors of conspiracy with Benghazi; it’s a fundraising industry unto itself for politicians. Therefore, I was initially worried that the movie was going to reinforce a version of events that eight (and counting?) congressional committees have refuted. I was relieved then that Bay’s movie keeps its focus pretty much squared on the heroism of the security team. In a way it reminded me of Black Hawk Down as it strived to recreate a series of harrowing life-and-death events with its focus more on the brotherhood and bravery of the ones in harm’s way rather than the broader political context. There is the infamous “stand down” order; however, it’s played almost incidentally, as Bob is trying to process all the chaos unfolding and the best recourse. As presented, it doesn’t sound like “stand down and let them die,” and more, “wait and let me think for a minute.” The fight to get air support from Italy doesn’t mention the fact that those Italian fighter jets sitting on the runway were not combat ready and were for flight training. There’s only one other passing dialogue exchange that touches the political, when the guys recount that the news is telling them it was a protest, which they scoff at and then let it go. That’s it. I imagine the audience that would be most excited for a Benghazi movie will be deflated. For everyone else, the sidestepping of politics lets the movie stand on its own better.
An article from Vox.com raises the issue of whether any movie about Benghazi can possibly be apolitical. It appears like the topic of Benghazi has been so cravenly politicized that any rendition of the events of that fateful day will reinforce or contradict some narrative, be it the security contractors, the CIA, the politicians on both sides of the aisle. And the absence of what others declare with certainty will only make those same people cry “cover-up.” It’s a shame that this topic is so radioactive that an objective approach celebrating the courage of those involved, mourning the loss of life, and asking for better from those in power seems impossible given the current divisive political environment. Did it have to come to this? Bay’s Benghazi is easily his most restrained movie in his bombastic career, paying reverence to the people who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The action is well staged and often visually striking, but Bay wants this movie to be more than a series of escalating action sequences. You feel he wants this to be his version of a Zero Dark Thirty-style thriller. Except it’s not. You watch the movie and sense there’s a more intelligent, nuanced, and ambiguous movie here that can make cogent points about foreign policy and the state of the Middle East. This is an action movie where the good guys shoot the relatively faceless bad guys. 13 Hours is an acceptable action movie but that’s all it ever asserts to be. Is that enough after all?
Nate’s Grade: B-
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