MOVIE REVIEW: 12 Strong

12 STRONG (2018)

GOING IN

12 Strong is a film based on Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book Horse Soldiers, that dramatizes the true story of a U.S. Special Forces team who deployed to Afghanistan in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. They were some of the first American military to engage in unconventional warfare against the Taliban and al-Qaida forces. As the title of the book and all of the film’s marketing shows, this group in particular used horses as part of their fight against enemy forces. Chris Hemsworth leads an interesting casts that includes Michael Shannon (who I don’t see as a special forces soldier), Taylor Sheridan (in his first acting gig since becoming a hot new writer/director), Trevante Rhodes (coming off an incredible performance in Moonlight), Michael Peña (most likely for some comedic levity), William Fichtner, and more. The film is directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, a former war photojournalist making his directorial debut, which means it should at least look good. I also expect the film to be rousing and patriotic, and as someone who was serving in the military and stationed in the Middle East at the time of the attacks, it will probably be quite affecting regardless of quality.

2 Hours and 10 Minutes Later.

COMING OUT

9/11 is one of those days that most everyone can remember in vivid detail. Each year on Patriot Day, it is common to hear the question “Where were you when…?” whispered around the office as co-workers somberly reflect on the tragedy of the World Trade Center attacks and share their stories, additionally observing a moment of silence at 8:46 am. It is nearly impossible to not feel those emotions of grief and sadness again, as we collectively remember those who lost their lives because of hate. And so, early in 12 Strong when footage of the crashes is shown, I’ll freely admit to immediately becoming emotionally invested. Then we are introduced to some of the soldiers that make up the team at the center of this story, and we watch as they struggle with feelings of anger and rage. They want payback, and they want it now. They know that it means leaving their loved ones, but these are men of ideals and they must fight. Again, emotion washed over me as I remembered my time in the Middle East, learning of the attacks and then sitting in my off-base apartment armed and watchful as demonstrations took place at a local mosque across the street. I, too, wanted payback. 12 Strong begins by presenting us with this background and bringing us back to that moment that we realized safety on our own soil was no longer a guarantee. It is a powerful and evocative opening act.

At the heart of 12 Strong, as with most good war films, is brotherhood. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) leads a Special Forces team that includes many men older and with more combat experience than himself. He is fiery and determined, though, and his natural leadership has them gladly follow him into a dangerous mission as the United States seeks to work with a local Afghan warlord to take a key city back from Taliban. The one thing that will quickly sink any war film for me is an inaccurate portrayal of military life. Thankfully, the team is shown in way that is very reminiscent of my own experience, effectively capturing the camaraderie that exists between these men who must rely on each other for their very lives. Also accurately shown is the way in which Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), the grizzled vet, supports and provides advice for Nelson, understanding the role in leadership that he has and helping the young officer to make wise choices. The relationship between the entire team is a joy to see, but there is a special bond between Nelson and Spencer – a strong mutual respect. At one moment as the men are about to embark on their mission, Spencer muses “It’s a hell of a thing we do. How do you love your family and leave them to go to war?” Honor, of course is partially the answer, but brotherhood sure makes it easier.

Once in the mountains of Afghanistan, Nelson and the team meet up with General Dostum (Navid Negahban) who serves as a guide and provides his army to help the Americans regain control of the city for them. Negahban’s performance is wonderful and was the surprise of the film, outshining the solid work by Hemsworth, Shannon, Peña, and others. Dostum and Nelson must learn to work together in what starts out as a tenuous relationship but ultimately provides a great example of what it means to grow to trust one another. What 12 Strong does differently than so many films set in this era is use this relationship to remind us of the Aghani people who were victims of al-Quaida and the Taliban themselves. General Dotsum is a truly great man who led his people in opposition of the Taliban and went on to become Vice President of the country in 2014. Here we see why, as he mentors Captain Nelson, teaching him the difference between a soldier and a warrior, and forming a bond that has grown into a lifelong friendship between the two men. This relationship as depicted in the film was probably my favorite aspect, and amidst the chaos of war it provided some dramatic character depth and an arc of growth for Captain Nelson.

The one thing that I dislike most about 12 Strong is the choice to include a villain. Around the beginning of the second act we are introduced to the Taliban leader who has taken control of the city and are shown examples of the horrific way in which his group operates. I did not feel this was necessary because we have enough real-life motivation to root for our heroes already. His addition was a distraction somewhat during the action and removing him might have trimmed off 10 minutes or so and made the film feel a little tighter. His inclusion doesn’t sink the film by any means, he just felt a little out of place.

Technically, the film has many strong qualities, chief among them the sound design. Gunfire and explosions sound crisp, real, and terrifyingly close. Cinematography is also very good, which is not surprising given the director’s photographic background. The film is full of beautifully framed shots, the likes of which you would see in a magazine from a wartime photojournalist like Fuglsig, but there is also an inconsistency to this that shows his lack of directing experience. Mostly the film looks and sounds great, with a near non-stop pounding score escalating our heartbeats in rhythm with the tension and action playing out on screen. It’s also a relief to see that the horses are not used as a gimmick at all, but their place in the story feels genuine and realistic (with the exception of one slightly unbelievable, but awesome, action scene).

VERDICT

12 Strong is a tight, tense thriller that retells an incredible story in American war history. It focuses as much on the diplomacy needed between the U.S. and Afghanistan as it does the incredible battles with Taliban fighters to show a well-rounded picture of how the two nations worked together to accomplish their mutual goal. This is not a propaganda film, but it does evoke powerful emotions related to memories of a terrible tragedy, and especially so for those who left their own loved ones to take up the fight themselves. Anchored by strong acting performances across the ensemble cast and without relying on manipulative fake motivational speeches, 12 Strong shows how loyalty works in a military brotherhood, and how powerful it can be. Many elements of the film may feel somewhat generic, but the emotional resonance can’t be ignored, and make this one definitely worth seeing.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Connecting With Classics 001: All the President’s Men

Welcome, listeners new and old, to the first episode of our new series “Connecting With Classics.” In this initial episode, Aaron & Don discuss the #77 film on AFI’s Top 100 10th Anniversary list, and one which is closely connected to current new release The Post. If All the President’s Men isn’t the best journalism film ever made, it’s certainly in the conversation. Join the guys for some history, some lessons, and as always some emotional connection.

One of the goals for “Connecting With Classics” is listener participation. We will be hosting prize drawings for podcast swag and more at the end of each calendar year. Entries into the drawing can be earned for every episode by watching the film and posting your own review or thoughts about the podcast episode in the comments section of the episode announcement post in our Feelin’ Film Facebook Discussion Group. For listeners who do not wish to be a part of the discussion group, emailing reviews to feelinfilm@gmail.com will also be accepted. 

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The Evolution of Eastwood: THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY

THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY (1966)

“I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.” – Blondie

I should get this out of the way right up front: I’m one of the very rare breed of film lovers who enjoys watching For a Few Dollars More more than The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. However, I do consider this third installment in the “man with no name” trilogy to be the more cinematically important film of those two, I think objectively that For a Few Dollars More is more tightly constructed and more focused overall.

This perspective was largely birthed out of this chronological, close-proximity viewing sequence. I watched each film with only a day’s break in between to collect and assess my thoughts on them. A Fistful of Dollars is a thrilling initial entry. For a Few Dollars More expands the world and enriches the character motivations substantially. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly attempts to do the same thing, while also making a handful of profound statements about the futility of violence and the cold reality of death. However, this third film takes so much time setting up that it feels unfocused in places.

There is undeniably cinematic greatness in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. The simple narrative of three competing bandits in search of a buried treasure amidst the American Civil War has the advantage of being simultaneously intimate and epic. There are moments of tremendous emotional impact, such as the scene where Eastwood’s drifter gives his coat and hits of his cigar to a dying young soldier or the juxtaposition of the hauntingly beautiful song the soldiers sing as Tuco is beaten for information. The themes are provocative, as the violence is amplified and the body count is significantly higher (of course due to wartime casualties). The film was initially heavily criticized for its violence, but reassessment over time has redeemed and highly praised Leone’s vision.

If the films latter half were the bulk of the movie, with the first half trimmed down significantly, this would easily be my favorite in the series. There are moments in that latter half that are utterly unforgettable and vastly outrank any individual moment in the first two installments. However, the first half spends a lot of time establishing the scenario: showing us Tuco and Blondie’s tenuous partnership and the ruthless, homicidal glee that Angel Eyes exhibits. We are nearly an hour into the film before we fully know the primary search the three titular icons will undertake, and while in other films that would be no complaint, Leone takes too much time in my opinion getting to where we need to get for the necessary collisions. The pacing feels ambling, as if the film were finding itself out as it went along. But once Tuco and Blondie finally set out for the buried gold, things quickly and powerfully ramp up.

My other major complaint is the disparity between how much characterization is given to Tuco (about whom we discover almost everything) versus Angel Eyes and Blondie (about whom we see primarily motivations only). If the same sparse background were given to all three characters, things wouldn’t feel so off balance. As it is, the climactic battle feels inevitable in its outcome and much of the suspense is diluted, despite the powerful cinematography, performances, and musical score.

Eastwood is given less to work with in this film than in either of the two previous installments. In A Fistful of Dollars, he had to balance pitting two rival families against each other and revealing a subtle benevolence towards a couple of their victims. In For a Few Dollars More, he juggled distrust and admiration for his new companion without ever losing the malice and threat towards the hunted bandits. But in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, he merely has to appear, look stoic and melancholy, and squint as frequently as possible. I’m not criticizing the performance, but the weight of interesting narrative beats are nearly all shifted to Tuco’s character (played by Eli Wallach). Just as For a Few Dollars More was mostly Colonel Mortimer’s story, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly is mostly Tuco’s, but unlike that previous film, Leone gives Eastwood’s bounty hunter less to work with, not more.

Eastwood still delivers a compelling performance simply by standing up. It’s worth noting that this film is technically a prequel to the first two, with Eastwood not obtaining his trademark poncho until late in the film (following arguably the film’s most powerful moment). Eastwood is captivating and charismatic, but he appears to be on autopilot for a large section of the story. Perhaps his working relationship with Leone was growing tiresome (they never worked together again) or perhaps he was ready to move on to other roles, but he does seem a bit more distant in this narrative than in the first two stories.

This film is nearly universally praised. Perhaps my disappointment in this viewing is more grounded in a reaction to that praise than to the film itself. Because it is undeniably an epic achievement, deeply influential in both cinematic style and the boundaries of film at large. If my review sounds like a non-recommendation, please don’t take it as such. This is a film that deserves to be seen and that you will likely highly enjoy.

But, in charting the “Evolution of Eastwood”, the film takes a surprising (if notably tiny) step backwards. Maybe this provides an explanation for why he wouldn’t appear as “the man with no name” again, at least not for Sergio Leone.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE

FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965)

“Where life has no value, death, sometimes, has its price. That is why the bounty hunters appeared.” – Opening caption

The sequel to the landmark Italian western A Fistful of Dollars is more ambitious and often more rewarding than its predecessor. Sergio Leone had struck gold with A Fistful of Dollars and he hastily began coordination for a sequel (albeit with new producer, having fallen out with Jolly Films who produced the original). However, Eastwood was reluctant to return to his role because, at the time he was approached, he had not yet seen the first film. A print in Italian was rushed for him to view and, after screening it with a few friends, Eastwood agreed to return for the sequel.

Interestingly, despite the trilogy coming to be known as the “man with no name” series, Eastwood’s character is definitively given a name in this film: Monco. This was largely due to a lawsuit brought by Jolly Films saying that they owned the character from A Fistful of Dollars (the title itself is a subtle jab at that studio: For a Few Dollars More).

Having so recently closed work on the original, Clint Eastwood’s confidence is fixed and his focus is tight going into For a Few Dollars More. He commands the role with much more assurance and his interpretation is more complex and subtle. It adds no small measure of assistance that he is formally playing off a comrade throughout the latter half of the film. Lee Van Cleef, playing the role of Colonel Douglas Mortimer (a role originally offered to Charles Bronson), is arguably a more prominent character in this film than Eastwood’s Monco. The film opens with Mortimer, and the final moments reveal more crucial stakes for Mortimer’s character in the outcome of the narrative’s events.

The story this time is that two bounty hunters (Cleef and Eastwood) are pursuing the same man and his gang of bandits. Seeing little chance of either one of them overpowering their prey’s gang alone (and following a fantastic sequence in which they observe each other’s skills with a gun) they decide to join forces and share the profits. What follows is pretty straightforward cat-and-mouse western gunslinging, with the upper hand shifting sides a time or two before all is said and done.

Cleef’s presence is a strong counterpoint to Eastwood and the scenes with the two of them together are electric as a result. Gian Maria Volonte returns as the primary villain in this film as well (although naturally playing a completely different character) and the enemy here is more cunning, more ruthless, and more emotionally complex than any of the bandits and gunslingers from the last film. His character is visibly insane, but not with a mad, manic fury. Instead, Volonte plays moments of murder so coldly that we know we’re dealing with a psychopath, which makes his occasional vulnerable quivers and haunted flashbacks even more fascinating.

These combined elements elevate the entire picture: Volonte’s complex villain, Cleef’s compelling addition, and Eastwood’s stronger and more layered performance. For a Few Dollars More certainly feels very similar to its predecessor (although the plots are certainly distinct), but it is remarkably stronger and more emotionally rewarding. It was credited with presenting a different take on the bounty hunter character in western cinema (giving that job a more credible and potentially heroic spin) and with catapulting Cleef and Eastwood into stardom in America. There were vocal critics of the film who derided the attempt to basically paint murderers as heroes, but the film was wildly popular with audiences and it became an even greater financial success than the first film.

Eastwood was also at a cross-roads career wise. His prominent roles by this point had all been westerns and the fear of being type-cast was perhaps already being realized. But Eastwood’s obvious gain in experience (even simply between these two films) was fashioning a performer who could communicate as much with a squinty stare as he could with a monologue. A legendary actor was emerging, and that legacy would become nearly irrevocable by the time the third entry in this trilogy was released.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS

A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964)

“Get three coffins ready.” – Joe

In 1964, legendary Italian director Sergio Leone changed the Western genre of cinema forever.

Prior to that time, westerns (which had been an exclusively American film genre) had been established and populated by tales of cowboys and outlaws, good guys who wear white and bad guys who wear black, wagon trails and cattle drives, not to mention a genuinely regrettable trend of negative portrayals of Native Americans and their culture. Pioneers of the genre, most notably John Ford, had carried the tropes and patterns about as far as they could go under the original paradigm. Most of them did not deal with morally complex heroes (with a few notable exceptions like The Searchers or The Treasure of Sierra Madre). And while those foundational elements are irrefutably brilliant, the genre’s popularity and effectiveness had waned by the mid-60s.

Enter Leone. Leaning on the plot of a recent Japanese film by Akira Kurasawa called Yojimbo (a stunt which got Leone successfully sued by Kurasawa’s production studio), and wanting to reinvigorate and revitalize the western genre, Leone envisioned a battle-weary town torn and terrified by the clashes of two rival families into which — one day — a stranger would ride and ignite the end of the longstanding feud. That stranger? None other than Clint Eastwood, taking on his first starring film role in the first installment of a trilogy that would propel and largely define his stardom.

There is a mountain of things to say about A Fistful of Dollars as a film and how it virtually redefined the western genre in ways which remain standard. It increased the violence and darkened the tone. It sharpened the landscape and sullied up the wardrobes. It presented a notably more brutal and unflinching world in which its characters would inhabit.

But most of all, it fashioned at its center a hero whose motives are foggy and whose morals are even murkier. He is compassionate towards and even rescues a poor family from devastation at the hands of the murderous family, but has no qualms or reservations about lying, scheming, and even casually leveraging dead bodies for his own financial gain. When the film begins, he appears to be merely a bounty hunter and enterprising gunslinger, but as the narrative progresses his deeper intentions (which border on the anarchic) emerge.

The film was, at the time, the most successful Italian film in history, spawning two even more successful (and most agree objectively better) films comprising a thematic and stylistic trilogy. When all three films came to the states (they’re called spaghetti westerns solely because they were made by an Italian director) they achieved identical success and skyrocketed the fame and career of Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood, for his part, delivers an assured and compelling performance in his first turn as “The Man with No Name.” He had played numerous supporting roles at this point in his career and had even been the steady leading role on nearly eight seasons of Rawhide for television. But his character here (occasionally called and credited as “Joe”, which is never confirmed) is firmly an antihero, the reverse in many ways of the white-hatted hero of previous landmark westerns.

What Eastwood brings to the role is a decisively enigmatic quality. His handsome face and humor-flavored voice contrast a distinctly menacing undertone. And when he squints — an entirely practical affectation caused by too much glaring light in his face — he puts on the facade of a mythic warrior, as intimidating as he is controlled. Leone (who originally did not want to cast Eastwood) later praised the subtlety of the performance, referring to it as appropriately binary. Leone is quoted as saying, “Eastwood, at that time, only had two expressions: with hat and no hat.” It echoes the ancient comedy and tragedy masks of classical Greek theater.

While the range is certainly limited at this point, it already foreshadows a depth and complexity Eastwood would later explore both in front of and behind the camera. For now, he shows up, makes his move, and then drifts off into the sunset. It’s an epic beginning to an epic career.

Richard Harrison, the popular western star who Leone wanted to cast (after Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and a slew of others turned him down) first recommended Eastwood for the role. Harrison would later state, “Maybe my greatest contribution to cinema was not doing A Fistful of Dollars and recommending Clint for the part.”

Honestly, with all due respect to Harrison’s fine work, I can’t say I disagree.

P.S. Although this series focuses primarily on Clint Eastwood’s evolution as an actor and director, it’s impossible to discuss A Fistful of Dollars without mentioning the iconic score of Ennio Morricone, who crafted an indelible soundscape into which westerns would venture for decades to follow. Simultaneously intimate and grand, Morricone’s score is as credited for the success of A Fistful of Dollars as either Eastwood or Leone. It’s a brilliant work and deserves its place in cultural legend.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

Minisode 036: The Post

We’ve gotten together to talk about Steven Spielberg’s newest film, The Post, a dramatization of the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which exposed government secrets and lies about the Vietnam War. With a cast led by superstars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, this story of unbiased journalism is extremely relevant and sure to land numerous Oscar nominations.


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MOVIE REVIEW: Phantom Thread

PHANTOM THREAD (2017)

GOING IN

Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis together again. In 2007, this pair of genius artists gifted the world with There Will Be Blood, one of the finest films of the 21st century, which resulted in Day-Lewis’ second Academy Award for Best Actor. Now, after a career of unrivaled success, Day-Lewis gives his final performance as a renowned dressmaker in 1950’s London who finds his muse, bringing love, creativity, and disruption to his methodical life. Paul Thomas Anderson serves as the film’s writer, director, and cinematographer – a rare feat that is no doubt within his ability. The film will almost certainly look and sound incredible, and in an Anderson script there are sure to be surprises along the way. With Anderson and Day-Lewis’ track record of excellence, it is impossible not to be giddy with excitement to discover the secrets Phantom Thread hides.

2 Hours and 10 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

Reynolds Woodcock. The name of Daniel Day-Lewis’ distinguished dressmaker should have tipped us off. It is a fine, strong name that sounds prestigious enough, but also one that provokes a little private chuckle on the side. And that is exactly what Phantom Thread turns out to be – part period romance melodrama, and part dark personal comedy. At times it felt almost wrong to be letting out an audible laugh when the characters are taking things oh so seriously. Come to find out, though, that is precisely what makes these wonderful moments so funny.

Phantom Thread turns out to be quite unpredictable. In addition to the humor, there is a psychosexual nature to the story that is both fascinating and uncomfortable. Alma (Vicky Krieps) and Reynolds’ relationship quickly becomes something unexpected. Woodcock puts dressmaking first, and Alma soon realizes that her existence is only noticed and appreciated within the routine he allows it to be. What he isn’t prepared for, though, is her push back and willingness to engage and challenge his status quo. Also vying for Reynolds’ attention (though in a much different manner) is Cyril (Lesley Manville), Reynolds’ sister, manager, and closest confidante. This triangle of relationships is always a little uneasy and how they ultimately resolve is the crux of the film.

Anderson’s work as the film’s uncredited cinematographer is incredible. His camera often focuses close-in on the actors’ faces, and much is said in a lingering stare or the slight turn of an upper lip. Though the dialogue is brilliant, so much is conveyed via body language. It speaks to the acting prowess of the entire cast, but also to PTA’s eye for knowing how to capture it perfectly in the frame. The atmosphere and set design of the film is mesmerizing, as well, combining with a beautiful violin and piano based score from Jonny Greenwood to cast a spell on viewers and immerse them in another time and place.

Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the obsessive, controlling Woodcock is pitch perfect. As expected, the method actor whose preparation is the stuff of legend, put in plenty of work to become the sought after dressmaker. For Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis actually learned how to sew, going so far as to hand-stitch a Balenciaga dress from scratch, while his wife (director Rebecca Miller) served as a model. Oh, and he also apprenticed for a year under costume director Marc Happel of the New York City Ballet, sewing 100 buttonholes as he learned the intricacies of the craft. All of this incredible effort leads to a performance that feels perfectly natural. Day-Lewis’ history is so fantastic that it might be easy to compare and call his work in Phantom Thread merely “very good”, but when measured against the rest of the acting field it really is one of the finest performances of the year.

However, it’s not even Day-Lewis that gives the best performance of the film. That honor must go to newcomer Vicky Krieps who is not just his equal, but is able to even outshine him at times. Her patient demeanor is both delicate and fiery, always giving the impression that at any moment she might crumble under Reynolds’ force or powerfully take control of a moment herself. Her acting is exquisite and the ability to emote so much without words makes her performance such a force. Not to be outdone is Lesley Manville, who also holds her own in every scene opposite Day-Lewis as the ever-steady rock of their strange sibling union. Combined these three stars are as good as any other ensemble cast you will see all year. They make every line sing and create characters you won’t easily forget.

VERDICT

Though PTA’s films had never commanded much of my attention before, Phantom Thread captivated me from the opening scene to the end credits and bewitched me unlike any other film experience in 2017. Thematically, it’s exploration of an unconventional romance between the obsessive man and his delicate muse goes in directions you never expect, and never ceases to hold your attention throughout. Cinematically, it is one of the most well-crafted, stunningly beautiful, perfectly scored, impeccably acted dramas I’ve seen in years. PTA’s meticulous attention to detail marries so well with Daniel Day-Lewis’ devotion to character immersion, and newcomer Vicky Krieps owns the screen in every scene. Like the notes left by Reynolds inside the seam of his dresses, Phantom Thread will embed itself in your memory and linger in your thoughts for long after your initial date is over.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Paddington 2

PADDINGTON 2 (2018)


GOING IN

In 2014, a movie based on a children’s book about a talking bear who is discovered in Peru and moves to modern-day London, became an overwhelmingly positive critical success. I’d never have bet on this happening. But it did, and so much so that the British live-action/CGI hit has spawned a sequel. Paddington was recognized for being a warm-hearted family-friendly adventure full of charm, wit, and with a playful sense of humor. It was also filled with gags that made it just plain fun, and my family is excited to see where the immigrant bear’s story goes from here.

1 Hour and 43 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

Rarely does a film so exceed my expectations that I’m left with a feeling of awe, but my face literally almost broke into pieces from the immensity of my smile as I sat watching one of the most perfect post-credit scenes I’ve ever witnessed follow-up a film so adorable that I wanted to hug it, then see it again immediately. The word awesome may be overused and have a wide range of application, but when expanded to its full definition of something that is “extremely impressive; inspiring great admiration”, it applies perfectly to Paddington 2.

Now with the origin story out of the way, director Paul King is able to show us what Paddington’s every day life in London is like with the Brown family. It still requires some suspension of disbelief to see humans interacting with a talking bear as if it’s routine, but it doesn’t take long to start feeling the joy that Paddington is bringing into the lives of everyone he interacts with and accept him for who he is, and not how he looks. Watching the Brown’s operate as a family is particularly sweet, and each member has their own personal issue of identity that they are dealing with in some manner. Each of these is introduced briefly and King’s ability to pay off each individual family member’s struggle while maintaining a balance of character focus throughout the film is a triumph. As for Paddington, he simply wants to find the best present possible for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, and due to a bad case of wrong place/wrong time he ends up in the most unlikely of places… prison. The rest of the plot takes everyone on whimsical adventures, complete with treasure hunting, plenty of detective work, and hijinks on a train. The film has plenty to say about being yourself, having manners, and looking for the good in others, but it is never distracting and rather genuinely uplifting.

Along Paddington’s journey, one of the characters he meets is former star actor turned dog food salesman Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). Phoenix wants what Paddington wants and serves as the villain of the film, and boy oh boy is Grant having the time of his life in this role. It’s impossible not to smile and laugh constantly because Grant’s performance evokes these involuntary reactions at every turn. While he doesn’t have the kind of Oscar-worthy moment that is thought of when awards are handed out for best acting work, his consistent greatness in playing this character perfectly should not be overlooked. Also hitting a home run with his performance as Knuckles McGinty, a prison cook, is Brendan Gleeson. McGinty and Paddington enter into a unique sort of friendship that is as much gut-busting fun as it is soft and caring. Paddington is the kind of bear who always looks on the bright side, after all, bringing people together and making the best of whatever situation he is in, and McGinty and the other prisoners find it as hard to resist his unrelenting kindness as audiences do his charm.

All of this is well and good, but what truly raises Paddington 2 to greatness is that it’s not just a wonderful family-friendly story full of laughter and smiles, but also a technical marvel. The blending of live-action and CGI work is really special, never once being noticeable or feeling out of place. The cinematography is always fantastic and often striking with vivid color. Many times I was reminded of Wes Anderson’s work, particularly in The Grand Budapest Hotel, by the way in which a variation of angles were used to frame characters and scenes in interesting ways (usually centered). That color, though, bursting off the screen as if it was alive, added so much to the overall joy of the experience and was a treat for the eyes.

VERDICT

Shocking as it may be to read this early in the year, Paddington 2 is a truly wonderful film that will stand as one of 2018’s best. As the sequel to a great film, this one is even better. More heart-warming, more hilarious, and with outstanding performances by Grant and Gleeson that set it apart from other animated and similar genre pictures. In a world that often gives plenty of reason to frown, Paddington will replace that with pure delight. Take the whole family to see it once, twice, or more. Spending time with this marmalade-loving bear will start your year at the movies off right.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

The Evolution of Eastwood: An Introduction

Last year, I spent time watching the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I watched them in chronological order of their release, from the first to the last.

The experience was revelatory in a number of ways. Certain thematic and narrative patterns emerged that would have otherwise remained buried in the bubble of the individual films. When taken in sequence, certain anomalies become fascinating sources of consideration for what might be happening in the life or career of an artist to draw them towards a particular project, even if something is done merely for the paycheck.

I love viewing such patterns and trends in the work of an artist. But when their films are viewed out of sequence to when they were made, it’s much more difficult to ascertain the shape and evolution of those patterns. You have to see what they did at point D to understand why point F looks and feels the way it does.

Artists – good ones anyway, but especially great ones – change as time carries on. The changes may be subtle, and perhaps not for the better, but the change is inevitable. And most of all, the change is interesting. Because an artist may be either embracing or rejecting certain notions about their own craft and legacy in real time according to the pieces they produce. Observing that linear evolution helps us to understand why they’re revered as artists, what the most common elements of their contribution to the art form are, and in many ways helps us to better understand why their material resonates (or doesn’t) with the larger artistic community.

For this year, at Feelin’ Film’s request, I’ll be turning my attention towards the work of Actor, Producer, Composer, and Director Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood emerged in the 50s and 60s as a man straight out of the western fabric of John Ford’s landscape: a strong, silent type who let his guns and his fists do most of his talking as the occasion called for it. But unlike the legends of the cinema who populated those early works (like Wayne, Cooper, Peck, and Stewart), Eastwood was darker, with an undercurrent of malice and spite. His ethics were more complicated and his characters were frequently more brutal.

Eastwood eventually solidified himself as somewhat of a mythic figure on the American cinematic landscape. Whether embodying drill sergeants, gunfighters, or the play-by-his-own-rules-of-justice lawman Dirty Harry, Eastwood became a quintessential symbol for the righteous outlaw. A take-no-guff, independent, machismo hero.

Yet, many of his films (specifically those which he directed) display a striking vulnerability and often a futility to their goals and aspirations. Frequently the victories come at irreversible cost, when they come at all. His career unveils some of the best and worst characteristics in our heroes, both the epic and the everyday variety.

So, throughout 2018, I’ll be charting his progress and evolution as an artist, both as an actor and performer (in primarily starring roles) and as a director. It’ll be a (hopefully) fascinating journey through the last 50 years of American cinema, through the lens of one of its most noteworthy icons.

The 60 films I’ll be covering are listed below, starting with Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” Trilogy and concluding with Eastwood’s planned 2018 release, The 15:17 to Paris.

Wish me luck… punk. I’m gonna need it.


Eastwood Films

A Fistful of Dollars (1964 – Actor) The Gauntlet (1977 – Actor/Director) The Bridges of Madison County (1995 – Actor/Director)
For a Few Dollars More (1965 – Actor) Every Which Way But Loose (1978 – Actor) Absolute Power (1997 – Actor/Director)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966 – Actor) Escape from Alcatraz (1979 – Actor) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997 – Director)
Hang ‘Em High (1968 – Actor) Bronco Billy (1980 – Actor/Director) True Crime (1999 – Actor/Director)
Coogan’s Bluff (1968 – Actor) Any Which Way You Can (1980 – Actor) Space Cowboys (2000 – Actor/Director)
Where Eagles Dare (1968 – Actor) Firefox (1982 – Actor/Director) Blood Work (2002 – Actor/Director)
Paint Your Wagon (1969 – Actor) Honkytonk Man (1982 – Actor/Director) Mystic River (2003 – Director)
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970 – Actor) Sudden Impact (1983 – Actor/Director) Million Dollar Baby (2004 – Actor/Director)
Kelly’s Heroes (1970 – Actor) Tightrope (1984 – Actor) Flags of Our Fathers (2006 – Director)
The Beguiled (1971 – Actor) City Heat (1984 – Actor) Letters from Iwo Jima (2006 – Director)
Play Misty for Me (1971 – Actor/Director) Pale Rider (1985 – Actor/Director) Changeling (2008 – Director)
Dirty Harry (1971 – Actor) Heartbreak Ridge (1986 – Actor/Director) Gran Torino (2008 – Actor/Director)
Joe Kidd (1972 – Actor) The Dead Pool (1988 – Actor) Invictus (2009 – Director)
High Plains Drifter (1973 – Actor/Director) Bird (1988 – Director) Hereafter (2010 – Director)
Breezy (1973 – Director) Pink Cadillac (1989 – Actor) Edgar (2011 – Director)
Magnum Force (1973 – Actor) White Hunter Black Heart (1990 – Actor/Director) Trouble with the Curve (2012 – Actor)
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974 – Actor) The Rookie (1990 – Actor/Director) Jersey Boys (2014 – Director)
The Eiger Sanction (1975 – Actor/Director) Unforgiven (1992 – Actor/Director) American Sniper (2014 – Director)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976 – Actor/Director) In the Line of Fire (1993 – Actor) Sully (2016 – Director)
The Enforcer (1976 – Actor) A Perfect World (1993 – Actor/Director) The 15:17 to Paris (2018 – Director)

 


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

MOVIE REVIEW: Insidious: The Last Key

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018)


GOING IN

The INSIDIOUS series has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. I acknowledge that it isn’t the best horror out there, but I very much enjoy the first two films in this franchise, and due to a strong final act I even don’t mind the third chapter. The concept of The Further and exploring a place where spirits roam while trying to attach themselves to the living is certainly an intriguing one. While James Wan has gone on to make much more masterful horror films in THE CONJURING series, his ability to create atmospheric dread made the series one I could stomach more than the blood and gore pictures in this genre. Admittedly, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 was a letdown and Wan’s absence was felt as co-creator Leigh Whannell took over directing duties. Now director Adam Robitel is attached for yet another Lin Shaye led sequel. It’s not unheard for little known horror directors to surprise with a good film, but it is rare that fourth entries in a horror franchise ever live up to their original material. I’m going into this one with pretty low expectations and hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

1 Hour and 43 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

 

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY begins with a flashback to a young Elise (series star Lin Shaye) living in her home on a prison campus. This insight into her childhood family dynamic and living situation immediately sets the stage for what will be her most personal haunting experience yet, when she returns to this childhood home much later in life to face off against a sinister demon. The details behind this particular occurrence are fairly dark in nature and the plot gets even more serious as it progresses. It’s actually somewhat shocking that the film maintains a PG-13 rating with the heavy content, but like other films in the series it does shy away from blood and guts, relying more on jump scares and atmosphere to provide the audience a sense of fear. Those scares are hit or miss, with a few genuine moments of surprise but many more of the telegraphed typical horror film variety. While some scenes may give audiences a quick jolt, the film never creates any lasting feeling of terror.

Returning to pen this entry (as he did the previous three) is series co-creator (and director of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3) Leigh Whannell. Whannell also stars in the film as Specs, part of the sidekick ghost hunting duo that provide technical assistance to Dr. Elise Rainier. You may notice the wording used in that last sentence and find it odd. After all, Specs and Tucker have never been the focus of any previous INSIDIOUS installments, but rather provided important brief moments of levity to give audiences a chance to breathe and have a break from the tension. One of the major problems with INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, though, is that Whannell has taken Specs and Tucker from fringe supporting characters almost all the way to centerpieces. In a trend that began with INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, their screen time has increased and so have the one-liners and goofy actions. Because of their frequency this makes the film feel like almost half comedy. Instead of the jokes being used as levity, they are gags that bring attention to these characters, taking the audience out of the tension built up. It’s almost like two guys from a buddy cop comedy got dropped into this horror movie. It feels very, very weird. Whannell also really gets lost in his story, and as it gets deeper and darker it also becomes more convoluted. There are some really interesting ideas, but he just doesn’t deliver them in narrative form in a crisp understandable manner. The time travel element that takes place in The Further, in particular, has never been explained well and is no different here. Understandably there is some disbelief that must be had to accept the fantastical nature of the spirit world in the INSIDIOUS franchise, but the decisions here just take that further (pun intended) than most viewers are going to be willing to go.

Also disappointing was Robitel’s male gaze as a director. This is something that I have only recently started to notice, but did so multiple times in this film and one particular scene is an egregious example. It’s because of this scene, which focuses the camera up close on a female’s heaving chest for nearly 30 seconds as she lays on the floor gasping for breath, that it became hard to take the two new young female characters very seriously. So little devotion is given to developing their characters and in the end they are simply a plot device and object of desire for Specs and Tucker. Robitel does manage to create solid atmospheric fright at times. His framing of character faces within scenes where action is taking place in the background was something that stuck out as a positive, and the opening section of the film was quite strong as well. Additionally, the demon design and way in which it attacks is unique and scary, even if it does move a bit like The Crooked Man from THE CONJURING 2.

VERDICT

Continuing the downward spiral after a solid first two films, INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY deserves to be locked away and forgotten. Whannell’s script puts way too much focus on himself and his comedy sidekick, while also taking a strong opening idea and making it so complicated that its difficult to take seriously. Robitel’s direction isn’t all bad, and the physical atmosphere is appropriately creepy, but the objectification of two younger female characters is hard to ignore. The INSIDIOUS franchise under Wan’s hand was great, but it has now lost the focus it once had and it’s time to use THE LAST KEY to close the door on these ideas for good.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.