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. 

Contact

Join the Facebook Discussion Group

Download this Episode 


Music: Going Higher – Bensound.com

Support us on Patreon & get awesome rewards:

or you can support us through Paypal as well. Select the link below and make your one-time or recurring contribution.

Rate/Review us on iTunes and on your podcast app of choice! It helps bring us exposure so that we can get more people involved in the conversation. Thank you!

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.


Contact


Join the Facebook Discussion Group

Download this Episode 


Support us on Patreon & get awesome rewards:

or you can support us through Paypal as well. Select the link below and make your one-time or recurring contribution.

Rate/Review us on iTunes and on your podcast app of choice! It helps bring us exposure so that we can get more people involved in the conversation. Thank you!

MOVIE REVIEW: The Post

THE POST (2017)

GOING IN

True story – my dream career for two decades was newspaper editor. Not an astronaut or a doctor or Major League Baseball player. I grew up with a very strong interest in journalism and political science. Had my life taken a different path, perhaps those two subjects would have resulted in college degrees that eventually led me to that desk job at a major paper.

The Post dramatizes the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed government secrets and lies about the Vietnam War. With a cast led by superstars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, and directed by Steven Spielberg, this story of unbiased journalism is extremely relevant and sure to land numerous Oscar nominations. The question is, will it be more All President’s Men or Spotlight? And will it rekindle my dreams or put me at ease about missing out?


COMING OUT

Standing ovation. That’s my initial reaction when the credits start to roll. I simply don’t clap for movies. It feels odd to do so when there is no one present to actually receive the praise being given from said action, but this film was the rare exception that made me want to.

The Post story, I’m ashamed to say, is not one that I was familiar with, but is a piece of history that is vitally important for all Americans to know well. Essentially the Nixon administration and government before him had a pretty bad habit of making decisions based on public perception instead of what might actually be best for the country. There was also a culture of “friendship” between the press and the White House that called into question the bias of reporting. All that was brought into focus, though, when the New York Times first published excerpts of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. After Nixon fails to persuade the NYT to cease publishing, a federal court does so claiming the papers violate the Espionage Act of 1917 due to their classified nature.

This is where The Washington Post, published by Katharine Graham (Streep) and edited by Ben Bradlee (Hanks) comes in. Hanks portrays Bradlee with a staunch patriotism and determination to do what he feels is right, which is always give the public the truth. “The only way to protect the right to publish, is to publish,” he says more than once, as he pushes his team to locate the Pentagon Papers and convince Graham to publish despite the potential consequences. Graham not only must face the risk of her career and freedom, but must do so in a world that where women were not frequently in positions of power. Streep’s performance is inspiring in the way it captures both the spirited strength of Graham as well as her nervous fears. Hanks is also fantastic and the chemistry between these two star-studded actors in a joy to behold.

Spielberg has also assembled an incredible supporting cast around Hanks and Streep. Bob Odenkirk stands out the most as reporter Ben Bagdikian, the man in charge of locating the Pentagon Papers for The Post. His resolve never waivers once and he is the perfect extension of Bradlee’s mantra that freedom of the press must survive because as he says about the government “If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?” John Williams’ score is much more minimalist than usual, but equally effective. It accentuates perfectly those heightened moments of drama with Oscar-worthy speeches, breaths collectively being held as decisions are awaited, and once scene where Spielberg shoots the printing press like it was in an action movie.

VERDICT

The Post features Spielberg’s best work in ages and the timeless greatness of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep is on full display. This all-star team-up provides the goods in telling an important story about the place of journalism in society and the necessity of checks and balances for public servants. Emotionally speaking, everything works here and comes together into a rousing picture that champions a right which Americans must cling to more than ever today. See it in a theater. See it with your children. As much a vital history lesson as outstanding entertainment, The Post is one of this year’s best films and should not be missed.

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: Darkest Hour

DARKEST HOUR (2017)



Going In

Before 2017, I had never heard of the Battle of Dunkirk. But thanks to Hollywood, we’ve all had quite the history lesson this year, with two films (Their Finest and Dunkirk) addressing that particular event in some fashion. Now a third film enters the mix, set during the same time period but not dealing with the battle specifically. Instead, Darkest Hour focuses primarily (see what I did there?) on one man – newly appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. As Hitler’s forces close in on England, Churchill must make difficult decisions that would affect the outcome of World War II. Playing Churchill is Gary Oldman, and he is already receiving an incredible amount of critical praise for his portrayal of the famous statesman. It will be interesting to see how his performance compares to that of John Lithgow, who just a few months ago won an Emmy for his own depiction of Churchill in the Netflix drama The Crown.  Also a curiosity is whether director Joe Wright will rebound from his underwhelming 2015 remake of the Peter Pan story. Wright’s experience with period pieces such as Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, and Anna Karenina point toward this type of material as being perfect for him, and that provides me with a lot of hope.


COMING OUT

Darkest Hour is my kind of biopic. Joe Wright’s film is a little less of a period piece than I expected, though. With only a few scenes of deep melodrama, it unfolds more like a fast-paced political thriller. Wright directs with a dazzling electricity that moves the film forward at a tremendous pace. Dario Marianelli, composer of the wonderful music in Kubo and the Two Strings, provides an incredible audible energy that matches the intensity of Churchill’s fiery personality and the wartime tension felt at the time. The result is a film that, despite being almost entirely dialogue driven, has the ability to put you at the edge of your seat. Since this story is about the great orator Winston Churchill, it is extremely fitting.

The story is also mostly true and I’d encourage viewers to read up on exactly what took place during these important months in 1940. Although Darkest Hours adds a few dramatic elements toward the end of the film, it mostly does justice to the primary players: Churchill (Gary Oldman), King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane). Anthony McCarten’s script covers only the month of May – Churchill’s appointment through his famous “we shall never surrender” speech. As Germany draws closer each day, Churchill must weigh the pushing of peace talks from the likes of Chamberlain and Halifax against the proposition of seeing the entire British Army wiped out while continuing to fight back. The Battle of Dunkirk does feature prominently here and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk will make a perfect complimentary film for a twin bill.

What elevates the film into greatness, however, is Oldman. He is nearly unrecognizable as Churchill, buried under the hefty weight of prosthetics. But where he succeeds most is selling the idea that Churchill truly did use language and words to turn the tide of English thinking toward resistance of Hitler’s regime. Wright and McCarten do a fantastic job of building this up, giving us little moments of Winston’s oratory brilliance, so that when he walks into Parliament for the final speech we fully believe his words will have the power they need. Oldman’s performance feels like a total immersion into the character, his veins seemingly about to pop at any time, and his stutters and pauses perfectly capturing the enormous pressure weighing Churchill down. I’m not sure whether two actors have ever won an Emmy and an Oscar within six months of each other for playing the same character, but Lithgow and Oldman definitely have that chance.

Verdict

Winston Churchill is a fascinating figure. Historian and politician, but also extraordinary leader. His actions within that first month as British Prime Minister changed the course of world history. Had he sued for peace, who knows if Hitler would have been stopped from overtaking Europe (and beyond). Darkest Hour is as thrilling as it is dramatic in telling this very important story of how a leader used words to inspire a nation. A fabulous film in all respects, consider this a must-see and a rival to the title of best film about Dunkirk in 2017.

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.

Episode 083: Black Hawk Down

This week, in honor of Veteran’s Day, we are talking what we consider to be one of the most affecting war movies ever made, Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the Mark Brown account of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. This episode is a bit more somber than usual because there is nothing funny about this film. It is unflinchingly brutal in its depiction of war and its effect on those who wage it. We have a frank discussion about the ferocity of war, courage, and ultimate sacrifice.

Black Hawk Down Review – 0:01:29

The Connecting Point – 01:28:23

Mogadishu Mile Memorial Run: https://www.facebook.com/Mogadishumile/

Contact

Join the Facebook Discussion Group

Download this Episode 


Intro/Outro Music – “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie

Support us on Patreon & get awesome rewards:

or you can support us through Paypal as well. Select the link below and make your one-time or recurring contribution.

Rate/Review us on iTunes and on your podcast app of choice! It helps bring us exposure so that we can get more people involved in the conversation. Thank you!

MOVIE REVIEW: First They Killed My Father

First They Killed My Father (2017)


Going In

Netflix’s latest original film to simultaneously release in theaters and on its streaming service is this foreign film directed by Angelina Jolie, adapted from the memoir of Loung Ung. I know very little outside of the fact that it tells the story of Cambodian genocide in the 1970’s and centers on a young girl who becomes a child soldier. While it’s not completely fair to compare, I’ve been unimpressed with Netflix’s original films released this year. That lingering memory coupled with my disappointment in Jolie’s incomplete telling of another true story in Unbroken leave me quite unenthusiastic about this picture.


COMING OUT

Gosh, what a story! This incredible retelling of Loung’s memoir is a captivating and yet painful experience all at once. Jolie has clearly arrived as a filmmaker, with this effort being her career-best. Despite having a relatively small filmography she has shown natural talent and gradually grown with each picture. It is also evident that Jolie enjoys celebrating the lives of unknown survivors and she directs in way that is respectful of the trauma they endured.

The discovery of young actress Srey Moch Sareum, who plays the 5-year old Loung, could be one of this film’s greatest accomplishments. Sareum has an incredibly difficult task providing a central viewpoint throughout. She captures the slow deterioration of innocence heartbreakingly well, as her family is uprooted from their near-perfect lives and forced into servitude by the invading Khmer Rouge. Soldiers strip their fellow Cambodians of all possessions and individualism while preaching equality through the removal of a class system. Their atrocities grow worse and worse, with the Khmer Rouge eventually “teaching” its prisoners that “It’s better to make a mistake and kill an innocent person than to leave the enemy alive.” In a film with so little dialogue, these words sting especially hard.

At times the film feels like a cinematic documentary due to its serious nature combined with gorgeous cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle. Of specific note are the many aerial views throughout the film. These shots were spectacular and among the best I’ve seen all year.  My biggest complaint may be that its methodical pace lingers a little too long at times. Still, it’s a minor quibble among many things I loved.

Verdict

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this film was going to be special. I was thoroughly engaged in Loung’s haunting struggle for survival, but was not prepared for how emotionally affecting this film would be. Loung’s life was not an easy one, and it’s both tragic to feel her loss so viscerally and inspiring to know that she’s emerged such a strong woman. While the film can be seen streaming on Netflix, I highly encourage a theater viewing, if for the visual splendor alone. First They Killed My Father is also Cambodia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film and will be a strong contender if it garners an Oscar nomination. It is always a treat to have your expectations exceeded. First They Killed My Father certainly accomplished that for me.

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.

Minisode 24: Detroit

(SPOILER-FREE FIRST 17 MINUTES) Don Shanahan (Every Movie Has a Lesson) and Emmanuel Noisette (E-man’s Movie Reviews) join Aaron to discuss Kathryn Bigelow’s intense new film about the 1967 Detroit riots and Algiers Motel incident.

Full Spoiler Review: 0:17:09

Contact

Join the Facebook Discussion Group

Download this Episode


Intro/Outro Music – “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie

Support us on Patreon & get awesome rewards:

or you can support us through Paypal as well. Select the link below and make your one-time or recurring contribution.

Rate/Review us on iTunes and on your podcast app of choice! It helps bring us exposure so that we can get more people involved in the conversation. Thank you!

Feelin’ It: The Zookeeper’s Wife Review

Rating:

The Zookeeper’s Wife, baed on the novel by Diane Ackerman, recounts the true story of Antonina and Jan Żabiński, and how they secretly used the Warsaw Zoo to save over 300 Jews who had been imprisoned during the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Tackling the Holocaust is no new thing for Hollywood, as dozens (if not hundreds) of films and documentaries exist, telling the stories of those who suffered in the world’s greatest genocide. It might be easy, in fact, to brush aside The Zookeeper’s Wife, and assume it cannot reach the greatness of films like Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, or The Pianist. But that would be a mistake.

The first thing you’ll (hopefully) notice, during the credits, is that this film is written/adapted and directed by women. Niki Caro helms the co-written project by original author Diane Ackerman and Angela Workman. Considering the story is based on the discovered journals of Antonina Żabiński and told mostly from her perspective, these are fantastic choices. If you haven’t heard, Hollywood has a real problem when it comes to opportunities for women, and The Zookeeper’s Wife is a perfect example of the great movies we can get when talented female artists are provided the chance to shine.

What makes The Zookeeper’s Wife stand out in a crowd of Holocaust-themed films is its blend of genre and style. A large portion of the movie’s opening is spent getting to know Antonina and Jan Żabiński. We are given the chance to connect with why this zoo is so important to them and really get a feel for their character – the same traits that will eventually lead them to caring for needy Jews instead of animals. The movie’s focus on the zoo early on will make animal lovers very happy. As the film progresses it has sections that feel very biopic in nature, while others are dramatic, and yet other scenes capture a real sense of war (with some stunning cinematography by Andrij Parekh). One gorgeously shot scene of note has a family being surprised by the snow they notice on a hot summer’s day, only to realize as it falls around them that it isn’t snow at all, but ash, something indicative of a nearby tragedy. This powerful, emotional moment is one of several in the film where its iconic imagery will become burned into your mind as you recall the feelings you experienced when seeing it on screen. The film also does not shy away from the horror of what Nazi Germany did to the many Jews of European nations. There are a few gasp-worthy moments but nothing too bloody. Be warned – animals do perish, and sometimes in heartbreaking manner, so young viewers who may be affected by seeing this should probably avoid this film.

Jessica Chastain leads a slew of great performances and exhibits an elegant strength that is perfect for this period setting. Her male co-stars are all up to the task, Daniel Brühl displaying a selfish disregard for both animal and human life while trying to outwardly proclaim that he has a soul, and Johan Heldenbergh tortured by his need to help others and fear of what this strain may do to his marriage.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is an incredible story. It’s portrait of empathy for the marginalized and oppressed comes at a time when the world really needs to see it. The Żabińskis were not Jews themselves, but sacrificed greatly to fight against injustice simply because it showed up on their doorstep one day. Their efforts saved many lives and the film captures the emotional swings of this so well. This is an inspirational film well worth seeing and learning from, just don’t expect a dry eye while doing so.

Emotional Takeaway: RADICAL COMPASSION

Khen Lampert identifies compassion as a special case of empathy, directed towards the “other’s” distress. Radical compassion is a specific type of general compassion, which includes the inner imperative to change reality in order to alleviate the pain of others. This state of mind, according to Lampert’s theory, is universal, and stands at the root of the historical cry for social change. This is exactly what we see from Antonina and Jan Żabiński in The Zookeeper’s Wife. It is tragic and rage-inducing to see the what Nazi Germany did to Poland, but the takeaway here is that when people step up and forego their own safety and comfort to put others first, lives can be saved and history can be changed. See this film because it is a very well-made movie that tells a compelling story through great performances and technical mastery, but walk out of it with a renewed purpose and outlook on life outside of your personal bubble.

Download the Audio Review Here