What We Learned This Week: October 14-27

LESSON #1: SUPPORT PHYSICAL MEDIA AND FILM PRESERVATION— The Friday announcement that the Filmstruck streaming service will close at the end of November is a blow to classic, international, and documentary films.  The vast Criterion Collection was previously occupying a shingle of Hulu Plus before Filmstruck can do be, and I’m sure that winning content will find a new home, likely something from its Warner Bros. parent looking to compete with Disney and Netflix.  Still, this is the equivalent of a museum loosing its walls boarding up its treasures.  Let this be a reminder call to support physical media, even if those Criterion discs are pricey.  I get that streaming is portable and convenient, but a top-shelf disc is worth every penny sometimes.  If discerning cinephiles should also look to local libraries for access to hard-to-find films.  I’ll echo fellow FF contributor Jacob Neff to promote the absolutely free Kanopy app that is connected to most library cards.  You can’t pass up free and make sure to follow Jacob’s “You Should Be Watching” column for recommended buried treasures.  If you need a checklist bigger than that, borrow Martin Scorsese’s.  

LESSON #2: FILMS MAY AGE, BUT THE MEMORIES AND IMPACT THEY CREATE WILL NOT— RogerEbert.com and New York magazine film critic extraordinaire Matt Zoller Seitz had a recent interview with The Last Picture Show filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and the topic of superhero movies came up.  The respected armchair historian asserted that superhero movies (with few exceptions) are going to “date very badly.”  I think the guy enjoying the way-back machine can’t drive the way-forward machine with the same level of understanding.  It is almost a certainty, like every genre hey-day that has come before now, that comic book films cannot maintain their current market saturation level forever, but not before adding to the game-changing level of impact and entertainment that they have earned and enjoyed.  We’re going on 40 years since Superman: The Movie and nearly 20 years since their early-00s renaissance.  In that time, superhero movies have the fan following numbers that have already created multi-generational reach. That’s bigger than a phase or a fad. They have become too big to fade into forgotten nothingness.  Like western or noir, they will simply evolve with their times because even with tastes changing, we’re still making westerns and noirs too.

LESSON #3: THE FILM MEDIUM’S MIDDLE CLASS CONTINUES TO FADE— Speaking of blockbusters, tentpole films never used to be so big.  There was a time that a $100 million budget was seen as an excessive risk that could sink a studio.  Now, we’re talking about $200+ million films being too big to fail or overinflated comedies (like Adam Sandler flicks from a decade ago) that cost $80 million to make when they used to cost a tenth of that.  Many of the popular hits of the 1980s and 1990s that came before the gigantic budget price tags of today were these middle-budgeted studio programmers that cost between $25-$75 million.  They represented an entire economy of smart money staple.  They always had one or two big stars attached that ensured a loyal and steady audience across most any genre, from cop thrillers to romantic comedies.  Today, especially after the announced shuttering of Annapurna Pictures (excellent editorial piece from Next Best Picture), the “middle class” film nearly doesn’t exist.  Things are either huge or relegated or dismissed to indie fare.  For some parallel examples, Die Hard had a $28 million budget and Pretty Woman‘s was $14 million.  Today, one would be a Dwayne Johnson film with quadruple the sticker price and the other would be a low-level indie like The Big Sick with a scant budget of $5 million that has to beg for funding and distribution.  Like our own national economy, if you want a healthier marketplace and industry, boost the middle class.  Bring back the middle-budgeted programmers.

LESSON #4: TAYLOR SHERIDAN HAS EARNED THE CRED TO MAKE ANYTHING HE WANTS— Taylor Sheridan is one hell of a writer and emerging as a one hell of a filmmaker too.  He had me at Sicario‘s script.  If he didn’t impress you by the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, you’re dead to me.  Wind River spread his wings to director’s chair and now he’s preparing his follow-up under the Warner Bros. big top.  His thriller Fast, with franchise potential, is coming and it’s attracting the attention of Chris Pratt.  Make it happen, WB.  Make it happen.

LESSON #5: NO ONE IS GOING TO MISS A BOBA FETT MOVIE— LucasFilm producer Kathleen Kennedy declared Friday that James Mangold’s Boba Fett was dead in favor of Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian TV series that will help open Disney’s exclusive streaming service.  I’ll be the guy that says it.  I never understood the fascination with the admittedly good-looking character after about four lines and faint presence in the original trilogy.  Fan fiction has made Boba Fett into a cult figure, but Solo shows that even legends can’t guaranteed a successful or profitable film.  The bounty hunter didn’t stand a chance on the biggest stage and James Mangold dodged a bullet.

LESSON #6: TALK TO YOUR KIDS ABOUT THE FILMS THEY WATCH— Notable semi-“granola” parent and actress Kristen Bell shared in an interview with Parent magazine that she’s not fully comfortable with some Disney animated classics.  She called out Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as one poor example, citing the failing to avoid taking food from strangers and, more astutely, the notion of consent when it comes to princes and their kisses to sleeping maidens.  Shrug all you want and dismiss Snow White and others as a harmless kids movies, but Bell is handling it right.  Bell shared in the interview how she makes sure to have discussions with her children after the movies they watch.  This school teacher over here writing this column highly approves of that parenting measure. Engaging in those talks elevates the experience from being time-killing entertainment into rich “teachable moments,” and they help correct misconceptions we might not even know kids had or picked up along the way.  The children will see your interpersonal example of the beginnings of critical thinking.  Make movies shared episodes of such enrichment and quality time.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a new member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over a year, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the special “Connecting with Classics” podcast program.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work.

MOVIE REVIEW: Sicario: Day of the Soldado

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018)

When the man behind a suicide bombing at a Kansas City supermarket is revealed to have entered the country through the border between Texas and Mexico, the President of the United States is in a position to officially deem human trafficking a terrorist activity, giving them more latitude to deal with the controversial issue. With the intention of waging a battle on this new front in the war on terror, Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver and his team are given the task of firing the first shot.

“It might get dirty.”

“Dirty is why you’re here.”

Stefano Sollima’s Sicario: Day of the Soldado is the follow up to Denis Villeneuve’s outstanding Sicario that no one really knew we needed but were all, nevertheless, curious to see. Gone is Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, the young FBI agent who served as the conscience and the audience stand in in the first film. Returning are Graver and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), as well as their unorthodox, but unarguably effective, ways of dealing with troubles at the border. Their plan is simple. They are going to kidnap the 16 year old daughter of the cartel kingpin who killed Alejandro’s family and make it look like it was another cartel. The intention is to start a turf war between cartels so that the war on trafficking will be fought against distracted opponents. But of course, nothing is simple at the border.

To tell more would be to give too much away. Sollima has managed to craft a follow-up that perfectly inhabits the world created in Sicario. Villeneuve had a way of putting his camera in places that made the audience feel like they were in the vehicle crossing the border or in the hidden tunnels used to traffic drugs. Sollima, especially in action sequences, gives us that same perspective, heightening the tension with every note of Hildur Guonadottir’s haunting score. One of the biggest obstacles to a sequel in my mind was going to be that the protagonist (I use that term loosely) of this film was going to be a guy who we saw murder women and children in the first film. Taylor Sheridan is able to more fully round out the character of Alejandro in a way that doesn’t ask the audience to root for him but also doesn’t allow him to be despised. Once again, Del Toro is electric in the role, but at this point in his career, saying that Benicio Del Toro is great is pretty redundant because he’s just fantastic in everything. Most of the tales that Hollywood tells of hitmen either glamorize or bring a sense of humor to the profession. S:DotS shows us the blunt reality of the job, but Del Toro never lets Alejandro become a monster. Speaking of redundant, Josh Brolin is also fantastic as Graver. His character isn’t fleshed out too much more (other than apparently he’s left his flip-flops behind for a comfy pair of Crocs), but being in the dark about his past is what makes his character work so well. Isabela Moner shows a deep inner strength as Isabel Reyes, the kidnapped teen, even as she’s completely terrified and in the dark as to what’s happening to her.

This film is tight, this film is tense, and this film is timely. Child separation, human trafficking, terrorism…those are all things that you can read about on the front page of your newspaper tomorrow morning. And Sicario: Day of the Soldado doesn’t presume to have any answers to these issues. While the original gave us Kate Mercer and her earnestness and her moral compass to see this world through, this film kind of just makes us sit in the filth and be disgusted (hopefully) by the machinations on both sides of this volatile scenario. There aren’t winners. There aren’t losers. It’s all just dirty.

So don’t go see Sicario: Day of the Soldado if you need a couple of hour diversion from your problems. But if you want a thoughtful, well-executed thriller, you’re not afraid to sit with a bit of ambiguity, and you enjoyed (or at least saw) the first installment, I think it’s worth your time.

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Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

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.

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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.

What We Learned This Week: April 16-22

LESSON #1: THE “FAST AND FURIOUS” FRANCHISE HAS BEEN FOR REAL FOR A LONG TIME— I was amazed this week how many casual movie fans (and uppity critics) were surprised by the record-breaking international success of “The Fate of the Furious.”  I wonder what rock they’ve been under because “Furious 7” was a $1.5 billion worldwide smash two years ago and each film of the four films since 2009 has surpassed the gross of the previous one.  The franchise has cross-gender and cross-racial appeal on multiple levels.   This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

LESSON #2: OVER-ANALYZATION TAKES AWAY FROM ENJOYMENT— After a month of incredible trailer debuts for blockbuster after blockbuster, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” came in this past week and dropped its own microphone.  In my opinion, Episode 8 didn’t need to share a single second of footage to be hotly anticipated and successful.  The problem has been the endless mountain of clickbait websites and posts filled that have tried to analyze every second of the trailer since.  I get that pageviews and visits move the needle and anything “Star Wars” sells, but diving into every little theory and poorly educated guess is destined to take away the enjoyment of the future finished product.  Pump the brakes and just enjoy the hype.  Don’t buy into the rumor mill.

LESSON #3: THIS YEAR’S CANNES LINE-UP WILL BE SPECIAL— The hoity-toity-est of international film festivals celebrates 70 years this May with a killer lineup of potential future Oscar contenders.  New films premiere from Sofia Coppola, Noah Baumbach, Bong Joo-Hoo, Michael Haneke, Todd Haynes, Yorgos Lanthimos, Francois Ozon, Mathieu Almaric, Taylor Sheridan, Arnaud Desplechin, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.  That’s some pedigree.  Take a trip to Europe.  I’m bet the plane tickets to the French Riviera and hotel prices are more than affordable.  Hit up United.  I’m sure they’ll have room.

LESSON #4: FILMS CAN ADD AS MANY POST-CREDITS SCENES AS THEY WANT— 50/50 cheers and jeers of “that’s so awesome” and “good Lord, WTF” rained down from social media keyboards when Marvel Films and director James Gunn announced that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” would have no less than FIVE post-credits scenes.  These stingers have been a signature staple for Marvel Cinematic Universe films.  They are both entertaining and functional to solidify the continuity of their film franchises.  You know you were staying anyway.  What’s a few more?  Enjoy the film’s kicking soundtrack, power back on your phone, and have a little patience.  If you don’t like it, go to the lobby, pee, and leave.  No one is stopping you or forcing you to stay.

 

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  He is also one of the founders and the current directors of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.