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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

Cherry (2021)

Between 2014 and 2019, the Russo brothers directed four Marvel movies with a combined worldwide box-office of over six billion dollars, so for their first foray from the world of super heroes and magic space gems, the brothers had carte blanche to pick whatever project they desired and Cherry was it. Watching all 140 minutes of this true-life tale, you get the feeling it’s less a story about loss and redemption and more an overly extended excuse for Joe and Anthony Russo to use every stylistic trick they’ve ever wanted to employ to make their own inferior Goodfellas (or Casino). Free of MCU oversight, these guys are practically going full Tony Scott or Darren Aronofsky with the multitude of their visuals tricks and gimmicks. We’re talking different aspect ratios, color washes and spotlights, heightened fade outs, fourth wall breaks and freeze frames, chapter titles complete with prologue and epilogue, in-your-face subtitles, tracking shots, and even oblique angles such as a point of view from inside Tom Holland’s inspected rectum. Cherry is aggressively flashy to compensate for how little substance there is with its story and humdrum characters. It’s based on a true story about Nico Walker (Holland), an Iraq War veteran coming back to Ohio, getting hooked on drugs, and resorting to robbing banks The trauma of his war experiences leads him to seek help and the system fails him and pushes opioids on him, turning him into another addict among too many who is desperate to do anything for cash. On paper, that sounds like it would be interesting, and the shocking part is that for all these identifiable dramatic elements and stylistic flourishes, Cherry is kind of dull. Everything feels like it’s kept at a surface-only level. Walker is just not that interesting even though interesting things happen to him. You would think it’s about PTSD, the opioid crisis, economic anxiety, and while these elements are present they are not really explored with any sustained nuance or theme. The level of social commentary stops at Fight Club-level snarky sight gags, like the names of the banks being “The Bank” and “Shitty Bank.” There’s too much bloat with the plot and running time. By far the most interesting section of the movie was his descent into addiction and the criminal excursion, but Walker doesn’t even exit the war until over an hour in. We did not need all the fluff before the war to properly set up this limited character. The real drama of the movie is post-war, and there’s an hour of setup that could have been cleaved away. You leave this stuff in as “texture” if you’re building something rich in atmosphere and character but I can only tell you what has happened to Walker externally. He’s perfectly unremarkable. The movie is too shallow for its own possible ambitions, and it ultimately feels like cribbed notes and homages to other movies the Russos enjoyed, like Goodfellas or Requiem for a Dream or Boogie Nights. It only reminds you of other, better movies, and one I was reminded of was Roger Avary’s Rules of Attraction. I appreciated the flash and style of that 2002 movie because it was about empty characters living empty lives striving for something they were incapable of, so the excessive and prioritized visual artifice worked. With Cherry, the visual trickery is distraction from the underwritten characters who the movie very much wants us to see favorably through their struggles. I enjoy Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) as an actor immensely but he is miscast here. He’s too boyish and charming and genial to ably perform dark and gritty antiheroes. You sense he’s eager to try these “darker roles” to prove himself but he doesn’t need to. Ciaria Bravo (Wayne) plays the girlfriend/infatuation object/junkie partner and she looks so young that see feels like an unsupervised child onscreen. Maybe that works with her as a symbol of innocence. Cherry is a movie that left me indifferent and shrugging throughout all its excesses and meandering. It feels like a movie the Russos needed to get out of their system, one of creative indulgence charging into familiar territory when more restraint, nuance, and contemplation would have sufficed, and maybe their next movie will be more mature and fulfilling and worthy of 140 minutes.

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.”

Stephanie: “Sorry.”

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.

michael-bay-s-13-hours-the-secret-soldiers-of-benghaziThis 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-

Sicario (2015)

imagesThe word “sicario” is Spanish for hitman, we’re told in a helpful opening text. It’s a term that has greater meaning in the landscape of the war on drugs, a war that has ravaged Mexico and its citizens. Sicario, the film, is grim and gripping and director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t hold back from the brutality of its reality. Sicario is a flat-out tremendous film. It’s the most intense film I’ve sat through since 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, so much so that for long stretches of the 121-minute film I was literally tearing my hair out with delicious anxiety.

Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is a Phoenix FBI Agent called in by her superiors with a very special offer. Matt (Josh Brolin), a government agent whose affiliation is classified, has a task force that he would like Kate to join. She’ll be taking it to the drug cartels by destabilizing their chain of power. Kate accepts the job. Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is a foreign agent in alliance with Matt, and he seems to be deeply knowledgeable of the cartel and their practices. As the chaos swirls and the team gets closer to the cartel bosses, Kate has to reckon with what she is part of.

Let Sicario be a blueprint for how to brilliantly develop suspense sequences in mainstream cinema. I’ve written about it before but the key to suspense and horror is simply characters we care about and the worry of what will happen next. Sicario places our characters in the middle of an ongoing battle and serves them up as the change agent, the proverbial stick rattling the hornet’s nest of deadly cartels. There’s a wonderful sequence when Kate joins up with the team for her first mission. She’s been told she’ll be based in El Paso but in reality she and a team of Army Rangers are venturing across the Mexican border into Juarez. They’re picking up a high-level cartel informant and transporting him back to American soil. The ride into the country sets the stage as the caravan of black SUVs tears through the streets of Jaurez, bracketed by Mexican state police vehicles. We’ve previously been told at what points a likely trap might be staged, and so we wait, taking in the terrain, the distance, the exits, the personnel. We’re already sizing up the Mexican state police cars; is that one on the take? It’s at the end that the scene coalesces into an even stronger whole, as we literally have a climax in traffic. The border entrance is backed up, and so Kate and our team wait, all the while identifying some suspicious armed men in traffic lanes parallel to their vehicles. They’re told they cannot fire until deadly force is used, and so they wait and we wait. It’s a top-notch sequence where you’re nervously waiting for the boil, waiting for the explosion.

lead_960Writer Taylor Sheridan (best known as Deputy Chief Hale on Sons of Anarchy) has taken what could have been an empty Michael Bay-styled drug war thriller and given it a soul. Sheridan’s structure is ingeniously tied into his larger message about the moral futility of the escalating war on drugs. As Kate becomes more immersed into the costs of her new role, of the mounting ethical compromises and legal loopholes, she becomes a background player and Alejandro takes center stage. Rather than simply harden up and sacrifice her ideals for the sake of her mission, Kate holds true to her principles, even if she might be the only one continuing to stick to the rules and a need for oversight. It makes her a far more interesting character and it all comes to a terrific climactic scene that hinges upon two characters at a forceful crossroads, each with diametrically opposed viewpoints. For all the action, Sheridan has found a great way for his story to have a character-based climax that hits harder than simply killing the Worst Bad Guy. As we learn more about the reasons Kate was selected, her literal marginalization in the story makes thematic sense, especially as she’s unwilling to become a “wolf” in a “country of wolves.” Alejandro is that wolf, and in the last act he becomes the film’s focus as the pieces of their destabilization plan fall into place. There’s a scene with Alejandro that is so cold-blooded yet badass that it made my audience gasp. As the bodies drop and blood is shed, Sicario doesn’t lose sight of its characters even to the very end.

Sheridan’s script tackles its subject with a propensity for acknowledging the messy reality. There are no easy solutions and perhaps the best solution is really one that is at odds with conventional legality. The United States is losing the war on drugs, and innocents are suffering in droves. Matt’s cavalier attitude is in response to the overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs has done little except to enshrine certain violent elements into power. He’s trying to clear a path for Alejandro, but for what aim afterward is ethically questionable. When you’ve got nothing but bad solutions, perhaps the best option is still one that’s a step too far. Sicario tackles the harsh realities of the war on drugs without ever dragging out a soapbox. The messages and debates are suffused in every frame, every taut sequence, even pained expression. It’s a message movie where the morality and the escalating action go hand-in-hand.

With Prisoners and now Sicario, Villeneuve has proven to be one of our finest directors when it comes to making adult movies that get your palms sweaty. The execution of these suspense sequences left me breathless. Villeneuve uses long takes of aerial photography hovering over the topography of Mexico and the American southwest. It has the effect of feeling like you’re surveying an alien planet. Added with the ominous score by Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything), the tension can feel overwhelming at times. The menacing and percussion-heavy score makes it feel like an army is approaching. The movie also looks absolutely beautiful thanks to the cinematography from Roger Deakens. There are several lovely shots lit with the dying rays of sunlight, which I would admire further if my heart weren’t in my throat while watching. Villeneuve also knows when to pump the brakes, letting his film breathe, and letting his actors take center stage. There are several moments of restraint that allow the actors to flourish. From top to bottom, Sicario is a technical marvel that impresses as it continues to horrify.

Blunt as a badass is nothing new after her killer turn in last year’s vastly underrated Edge of Tomorrow, but there’s way more to her than being a superhero with a gun. She’s the moral conscience of the movie and you may discover, as she does, how irrelevant such a stance may be in this underground world. She’s trying to make sense of it all, trying to go along with what she thinks is right, or at least making a difference, and swallowing her frustrations. She saves the best for last in a finale scene that pushes her character to the breaking point of her ethics, and Blunt floors you. While Blunt is our entry point into this world, and Brolin is amusing as a cavalier rogue agent, this is very much Del Toro’s movie. Alejandro could easily be the slick movie-cool hitman, a soulless killing-machine, but he’s a haunted man who knows he’s damned and goes about his business with steely resolve. Benicio Del Toro can often be confused with doing little acting because he so naturally underplays his characters, but keep watch and you’ll see a man who inherently knows his character. There are subtle shifts and small reveals that open up Alejandro, who is so hardened that this will be all you get.

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There have been some complaints citing the film’s lack of perspective from the Mexican side of the border, which is fair but also overlooking Sicario’s complexity. With its fear of cartel war violence spilling over into American neighborhoods, it’s not hard to see this film becoming supposed evidence in a xenophobic political campaign. Surely Donald Trump will be talking about Sicario. There is a small degree of representation with a minor character involved in the drug trade. The movie flashes back to him and his family a few times, setting us up to expect he’ll return at a pivotal moment later. He’s a completely unremarkable character and the brief scenes we spend with him made me anxious to get back to Kate and the main story. I didn’t care, and then he did reappear and I was quite surprised to find myself actively caring for this minor character’s well being. In a scenario where it seems like there’s a lack of vulnerability, this character provides it. He’s not a bad person per se as just another cog in a corrupt machine trying to provide for his loved ones. It’s a window into the larger ramifications of Kate and Matt’s actions. The very last bittersweet image doesn’t feel like victory, more like a warning of impending consequences that will befall innocents, and they aren’t Americans.

It’s rare to get a Hollywood thriller that excels at what it does and exceeds lofty expectations, but Sicario is that movie. Here is a thriller that excites, unnerves, provokes thought as well as terrible anxiety that you sweat in buckets over. The general feeling while watching Sicario is one of disquieting dread. The challenging and disturbing reality of the war on drugs blends with the brilliantly executed suspense sequences. The characters don’t get lost midst the clatter of violence, the direction enhances the actors and allows them to better inhabit their engaging characters, and the overall orchestration of all the many moving parts is so polished, so in tune, so electric that Sicario often does more than just entertain, it forces you to react. Leaving my theater was akin to coming down off an adrenaline high and I wanted to tell everyone I knew to see this movie. That’s the power of great cinema and Villeneuve has created a compelling feature that deserves to be soaked up and studied. This is exhilarating moviemaking, folks.

Nate’s Grade: A

Lone Survivor (2013)

lone-survivor-posterWhat do you do when the title of a movie is a spoiler? That’s the question with director Peter Berg’s reverential military action film, Lone Survivor. It’s the true story of a team of Navy Seals who had their mission compromised by a pair of unlucky Afghan goat herders. After deciding to set them free, rather than snuff them out, the Seals retreat to an extraction point, with a hundred Taliban fighters hot on their heels. When the action is firing, Berg is right at home, placing the audience in the middle of a visceral firefight that’s bloody and hardcore and pulse pounding. The rocky terrain of the country is just as deadly as the Taliban, as the Seals bounce around like ragdolls. The performances are all grizzled and finely attuned to keeping the terror of the moment at bay. Ben Foster (The Messenger) is the standout, which is a statement that’s been said with most Foster performances. At the end, I’m left wondering what is the film’s greater message. It’s retelling a military episode few people know about, illuminating the courage and bond between soldiers under fire. But in the end, all of these lives were lost because of one moral though arguably bad decision. Couldn’t they have just tied up the goatherds and gotten a better head’s start? Will the movie convince an audience that those innocent Afghan goatherds should have just been collateral damage? Does the movie critique the futility of America’s ongoing presence in Afghanistan? The futility of war itself? I doubt it, especially with Berg’s fervent appreciation of the armed forces putting their lives on the line (the opening credits themselves glorify the toughness of the Seals while also setting up an explanation why they could survive so many gunshots, injuries, etc.). Lone Survivor isn’t the heedless jingoistic propaganda piece that others critics have feared, but in the end it’s simply a sober and respectful tribute to the fallen, and that’s it. For many, this will be enough. For me, I was thrilled by the heroics but looking for more.

Nate’s Grade: B

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

GI-Joe-Retaliation-Brazil-Poster_1336503185Originally intended to be released in the summer of 2012, G.I. Joe: Retaliation was pulled back because, presumably, they wanted to convert it to 3D, but many suspected it was to add more time for star Channing Tatum after his box-office domination that year. Well, wrong on both accounts, because maybe it was merely kicked back because, get this, it’s not terribly good. I had the lowest possible expectations for the 2009 G.I. Joe movie but came away having a fun time; it was the right kind of enjoyably stupid. Well now it’s just stupid. Cobra has kidnapped the president, inserted a doppelganger, and now wants to rule the world that to an evil satellite that drops giant metal rods into space as weapons. Why are these rods not part of the Earth’s orbit after release? There are all sorts of gadgets here that make no sense but somebody thought might sell some toys. The central storyline is almost a knockoff of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a small group of Joes having to clear their names. Then because that isn’t enough material to work with, there’s a mini-movie about ninja warriors avenging their fallen master in the mountains, and of all people, the RZA is supplying lengthy exposition. The action sequences are absurd without having enough style to excuse the absurdity. Everyone is a superhuman but also incompetent when the plot demands it (ninjas can shoot flying knives but not a big person jumping off a wall?). Adding The Rock is always a bonus in my book; the man is charisma personified. But the storyline of Retaliation is so sloppy, the villains so lame, and the movie lacks the high-spirited imagination to keep the stupid at bay. I was never a G.I. Joe kid so maybe those with nostalgia will be more charitable than I am, but G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a poorly executed next step for a once-budding franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Invisible War (2012)

Kirby Dick is a documentary filmmaker known for picking fights with powerful institutions that operate in secrecy. In the Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith, he scrutinized the abuses of the Catholic Church covering up for sexual predators.  In 2006’s This Film is Not Yet Rated, he hunted down the then-unknown members of the MPAA ratings board and delivered an overwhelming critique of their ratings hypocrisies. With The Invisible War, Dick has taken on a subject that’s even more powerful. The Invisible War, which won some awards at the Sundance film festival, examines the rampant numbers of sexual assaults and rape within the military. Through extensive, emotionally draining interviews and enraging statistics, Dick shows that most of the victims, when courageous enough to report their abuse, are met with skepticism, contempt, and injustice. One interview subject says that being raped isn’t what makes her angry the most: “It’s the commanders that were complicit in covering up everything that happened.” This is a shocking, sobering, and eye-opening documentary that deserves to be seen by every American. You owe it to the brave men and women who serve this country, to see this movie. The ugly truth needs to come out and be finally dealt with.

The upsetting statistics of sexual abuse within the military come from the Department of Defense, not an advocacy group, but our own government. Here are some of the most devastating stats:

-20 percent of all women in the military have been sexually assaulted and/or raped while serving.

-Women are twice as likely to be raped in the military rather than outside it.

-Military sexual assault/rape victims have a higher rate of PTSD than soldiers who have fought in combat.

This is a profoundly revolting, morally repugnant, and infuriating story presented with damning testimonials clear-eyed logic. When I left the theater, I was radiating unquenchable fury. You could have harnessed my rage as an alternative resource. A lot of people blithely say they support the troops but we as a nation are letting these brave men and women down. The system is letting these people down, protecting rapists, training them to be better rapists, and then setting them loose upon the civilian population to continue their heinous crimes (it’s estimated the average sexual predator commits 300 acts in his or her lifetime). Listening to these heartbreaking stories can be grueling, but it is vital to listen. The women speak with such candor and bravery, befitting those ready to lay down their lives out of service for this country. But lest you believe this is merely a “women’s issue,” the film has a few interviews with male victims as well. With men outnumbering women six to one in the military, men are the majority of the victims of sexual abuse, a fact I doubt many would have known. As the experts attest, for an organization that rewards machismo, the shame for men can be compounded by the rampant homophobia within the American military culture.

It’s sadly understandable that so many of the interview subjects contemplated or attempted suicide. “Suicide or AWOL, those are your only two real options,” a military investigator laments. According to TIME’s investigative report, one Iraq and/or Afghanistan veteran commits suicide every day in America. Now remember that stat above concerning PTSD, and think about what the suicide rate must be like for victims of sexual abuse. One military man, husband to a rape victim, breaks down in sobs recounting his phone call for help while he tried to stop his wife from taking her own life. Watching proud, grown men break down into tears when they try and make sense of their institution harming their wives or daughters, it’s heartbreaking all its own. These veterans would not advise any woman to consider a career in the military, not when this is the sorry state of justice.

These victims were often handled with apathetic, callous, or downright hostile behavior, often being blamed for being attacked. These victims risked their careers to report their abuses, expecting some semblance of justice, and many times they were simply ignored or punished for “making waves.” One interview subject talks about how her commanding officer related that he had heard about three rape accusations that week and incredulously asked if the women were all in cahoots. One woman was raped and then charged with adultery; she wasn’t married but her rapist was, though he was never brought up on charges. Dick’s documentary lays a clear argument that giving the commanding officers, people often without any legal training whatsoever, the power to prosecute cases leads to plenty of ignored abuses. In 2010, the military reported 3,158 reports of sexual abuse (remember that 80 percent of cases generally go unreported), but only one-sixth of those cases lead to a court martial and only 175 of the assailants served jail time. And when they do serve jail time, it’s often knocked down to mere weeks. That way, the convicted serviceman doesn’t get charged with a felony. This also means when they leave the military, the convicted sexual offender does not have to register with a national sex offender database. When investigations do arise, they are routinely stonewalled.

What emerges from this inflammatory documentary is that the command’s response wasn’t to protect the victims but to protect the accused, time and again. These commanders are supposed to be objective and impartial arbitrators, but this is hardly the case. It’s all about saving face, and a commander looks bad when he has a rapist in his unit, so rather than expel and punish the rapist, the military often drops the case and punishes the victim. Sometimes the commanding officer the victims are supposed to report the abuse to was in fact the perpetrator.  In those instances, the victims have no possible path to justice. Major General Mary Kay Kellogg, Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (DOSAPRO), said victims could appeal to the Defense Department’s Attorney General, hence going over their commander’s head. Except that of the almost 3,000 cases sent to the DOD AG, not a single case was ever prosecuted. Kellogg also absurdly suggests that victims petition their Congressman. Just imagine a civilian being raped and told, “Better ask your Congressman if you want justice.”

The response to the systemic abuses has been ineffectual. The military response was to raise awareness, not sift out rapists from the ranks and protect their own soldiers from sexual predators. The ad campaign to raise awareness is jaw-dropping, with slogans like, “Wait til she’s sober,” and a horrendously ear-splitting rap song about sexual assault prevention. It’s so bad you can almost feel the seething resentment of the military. There’s also an informative video with a dramatization of a woman, fleeing helplessly after a man tries to touch her (the fact that this dramatization makes the woman look silly is intentional, me thinks). This woman runs into another serviceman who admonishes her, “Where’s your buddy?” The implication is that women should know that they can be raped at any time unless accompanied by a buddy. Does this not imply that every man in the military is capable of rape at the drop of a hat? And what if that buddy ends up being your rapist? The military builds a greater sense of camaraderie, and the men and women in uniform feel like a family. As one interview subject notes, when one soldier rapes another, it is akin to a crime of incest, a betrayal of that family. One victim was told she brought on the sexual harassment because of what she was wearing… which just happened to be her military uniform.

Dick’s film is obviously advocating a very specific side, but who cares about the idea of presenting balance given the subject? The Department of Defense spokespersons and their rote, officious responses are edited for some major points of baffled, incredulous laughter, as we contrast their company line with the testimonials of the men and women they failed to protect. Again, I return to the notion that not every story has two sides. What exactly is the other side in this epidemic of abuses? What possibly could the merits of the other side be, the status quo? This is not just some anti-military screed. In fact, many of the participants speak so highly of the ideals of the military, the duty to serve, and their genuine feelings of belonging to these hallowed institutions. This makes their disillusionment all the more distressing. Almost every interview subject has a military background, some discharged and some retired, and the movie presents its claims with clear, level evidence. The testimonials are so damming, the abuses so clearly documented, the obfuscation from justice so repeatedly maintained, that I cannot even fathom a second side to this story. When it comes to sexual assault, there is only one side to this issue.

Dick also doesn’t overplay the obvious emotional appeals in the film. There is plenty, but he doesn’t sensationalize the drama or amplify the emotions in a self-serving manner. Instead, the film looks to clearly examine a systematic problem. Rather than deal only with potent outrage, Dick’s film is also a call to action with some strong ideas on how to better protect the victims of sexual abuses. Set up an independent system of justice outside of the commanders’ control, and work on preventing rapists from joining the military rather than cutting down the possibilities of how women can be raped. How about we punish the guilty party?

Last year, a group of veterans who had been sexually abused, initiated a class-action lawsuit against the military. This suit was dismissed by the court because, in their words, rape was an “occupational hazard of military service.” Reread that sentence again. Let it sink in. Now ask yourself is that at all acceptable given the values we profess for our country? The culture within the military is simply that rape and sexual abuses are just not that big of a deal (a Congresswoman admits that the Defense AG told her they have “other, higher priorities” to worry about), and so it all continues. The implication is that for the military to function, you’re going to have to excuse some excess, that excess being an estimated 30,000 sexual assaults a year. I’d like the military brass to explain to me what number would be unacceptable. How prevalent do these abuses need to be before proper action is taken, and not some facile PR, face-saving empty gesture, but something real? To me, one rape is one too many.

Dick’s excoriating advocacy documentary is powerful, furious, but sensitive to the victims and their horrifying ordeals. It declares that we can and should do better. In April, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta watched The Invisible War and two days later made some changes. He took the decision to prosecute away from the commanders. It’s a start, but there’s a long way to go to fixing the military’s patronizing view of women. The movie opens with a series of advertisements targeted at women through the years, and the treatment is astoundingly patronizing and the film’s only spot of bleak humor. At one point, one of the victims asks if she and her fellow victims hypothetically deserve purple hearts for being wounded in battle too. “We’re never going to get anything,” another replies. These victims deserve recognition and justice, which has long been denied them. You won’t see a more challenging, infuriating, and compelling documentary of this year. It’s hard to watch at many points, and I cried at five separate occasions, but this is a movie that needs to be watched. I invite all readers to visit the Not Invisible site and consider joining the advocacy of this noble cause. You say you support the troops? Prove it.

Nate’s Grade: A

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