Angel Has Fallen

Release: Friday, August 23, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Robert Mark Kamen; Matt Cook; Ric Roman Waugh

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

Angel Has Fallen is the third but definitely not last installment in the Fallen action movie franchise. That there are enough of these movies to justify the word ‘franchise’ seems an indictment of the American Secret Service. How many other landmarks and VIPs are going to fall on Mike Banning (Gerard Butler)’s watch before he gets fired? Before the concept itself falls into parody? Are we there already?

Angel has probably fallen out of the memory of anyone who caught it in theaters last year but it’s the one I would return to again, no arm-twisting involved. And with no driving involved either, it’s quite possible this review is going to be much sunnier than others you have read. Ric Roman Waugh is the third different director in a series that has at least three more films planned and a TV series spinoff, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how the quality goes from here. For now it seems the third time’s the charm. Angel Has Fallen is a surprisingly fun diversion that I actually had a good time with.

The tables have turned against Butler’s bulletproof Banning as he becomes Public Enemy #1. The story sees the formerly disgraced Secret Service agent due for a promotion to Director. He would be replacing Lance Reddick‘s Director David Gentry, a man who suggests some level of class might be required for the position. The time has finally come to domesticate Banning the wild animal. (The script has these very manly men actually calling each other lions.) While his body is telling him the days of saving the president over and over again are indeed over, what with the chronic back pain and migraines that he keeps secret from his wife (Piper Parebo), his ego is what keeps him in the field and wincing off to the side.

Besides, if he graduates to a big boy office job, when is he ever going to find the time to reminisce about those crazy days in the Army with his old buddy Wade Jennings (Danny Huston)? (Now the CEO of a private military outfit called Salient Global, Wade is the second of the two self-proclaimed lions.)

During a private fishing trip President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) extends Banning the offer but a drone strike rudely interrupts the day and lays waste to the rest of the security detail, ultimately leaving Mr. President in a coma and Mr. Indestructible handcuffed to his own hospital bed. Banning awakens only to find he has been named a prime suspect by what Special Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) of the FBI is calling an attempted assassination. One rather aggressive interrogation and a couple of pretty thrilling developments later and Banning’s on the loose, on the run, in a race against the clock to clear his name and establish the identities of those responsible.

There’s no denying Angel Has Fallen is a generic action thriller. You’re never in doubt as to whether the hero will succeed, or even as to what his next move is going to be. Undoubtedly its biggest flaw is the lack of character development. It’s pretty pathetic that after three movies we still don’t know much about Mike Banning (well, we now know he’s a lion). In fairness, the filmmakers do attempt a deeper background check on the guy than their predecessors. One of the best stretches of the story takes us down the twisty backroads of West Virginia where Banning eventually makes a pit stop at his old man’s heavily fortified cabin to lay low for a while. Clay Banning (Nick Nolte) is your quintessential disillusioned war vet who no longer trusts the government and hasn’t seen his family in years. The grizzled and bearded Nolte somewhat succeeds in providing some emotional weight to the story but his character, like all the other supporters, is a walking cliché.

It’s interesting to note that series creators and original screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt are not along for the ride this time. Filling in for them are Matt Cook and Robert Mark Kamen, who have Patriots Day, Taken and The Transporter writing creds between them — all solid action thrillers if not entirely game-changing originals. More importantly they seem the right kind of background for those looking to add their own link in this chain of middling action movies. The pair collaborate with the director on a screenplay that turns out to be very formulaic. However their concept incorporates more of an adventure element into it, making this effort different enough for me to feel more comfortable recommending. That’s definitely a first for this series.

He said I was a lion. Was he lyin’??

Recommendation: Netflix has made this a win-win situation. I get to experience more of the world’s most generic action movie franchise, now at least 60% more guilt-free: I don’t have to put gas money towards a Gerry Butler movie. I’m spared the shame and possible confusion of a ticket attendant mistaking me as a fan of this series even after London Has Fallen. I can pause the show however often I need (per empty beer glass, in this case). And best of all I get to prop my feet up and yell at the screen every time a character does or says something dumb, which in this movie happens a lot. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “I’m glad it was you. Lions, Mike . . . lions.” 

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Photo credits: IMDb

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (Taxi Tehran)

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Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Jafar Panahi

Directed by: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker seemingly undeterred by the consequences of his actions. Those consequences have, as a matter of fact, formed the basis of some of his oeuvre, such as his acclaimed 2011 documentary This is Not a Film, wherein he captured a day in his life under house arrest. Presently the writer-director is serving a six-year sentence and is not allowed to leave his country for perceived propaganda disparaging of the Iranian Republic. Despite such restrictions, which also include a 20-year ban on filmmaking, his latest is available to stream in many countries not his own.

The dissemination of Taxi is in itself a minor miracle. The particulars of how it has come to surface in international streaming services like Netflix remain unclear but if the hula-hoops he had to jump through just to get the aforementioned 2011 piece submitted to the Cannes Film Festival is any indication — allegedly he had to stuff a thumb drive containing the film inside a cake which was snuck across international borders — you can safely assume distributing Taxi was no easier.

While Panahi’s directorial limitations are immediately evident, he gets creative by posing as a cabbie while filming via dashboard cam his interactions with ordinary Tehranis. A few recognize the man while others, such as the opinionated first passenger who goes on a rant about upholding stiffer penalties for lowlives who steal from the poor, remain oblivious. Each patron that gets in this cab offers some small window into life in a less tolerant society, and while the narrative device is a little contrived — I can’t imagine every taxi driver having such interesting interactions with all of his customers in a single shift — it certainly works, and it works incredibly well for a director who is essentially giving the middle finger to the Iranian government.

Some of the people he picks up are more forthright than others — a woman selling roses, for example, even breaks the fourth wall with her candid commentary about life in Iran as a woman and how she feels about the punishments that have been forced upon Panahi as a filmmaker. She even advises her friend on the segments of this film that he should probably get rid of because of their blunt honesty. Clearly Panahi didn’t feel the need to censor himself, which, of course, is the point.

Panahi’s niece also features prominently as an aspiring filmmaker attending arts school. Even though she’s telling her uncle all about the rules her instructors have delineated about the kinds of subject matter they can and cannot film — more often than not they regard the latter, specifically anything that would cast an unfavorable light on life under Sharia Law — she’s really informing us. An intelligent young girl becomes the conduit through which Panahi expresses his own outrage over being censored.

Taxi, a slight but intriguing documentary, leaves plenty of food for thought. Panahi’s creative abilities allow it to be something more than just a childish tantrum, it’s a quietly righteous political statement that deserves our undivided attention, one that makes this reviewer feel fortunate for all the privileges he has living in a nation where movies about porno stars, civil rights dramatizations and less flattering portraits of presidents (both past and present) not only can exist but allow us to evaluate what is going right and what is going wrong in our society.

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Recommendation: An intriguing film that sheds light on both the state of the Iranian film industry as well as the larger culture surrounding it. There’s probably nothing in here that will surprise anyone but what might surprise you is just how effective Jafar Panahi makes a film with such limited resources (plus the fact he’s not even supposed to be filming at all adds an extra layer of tension to proceedings). It’s an important film that I believe many people need to see and it has certainly whet my appetite for more from a director who has proven he won’t be ignored. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 82 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.filmmakermagazine.com; http://www.imdb.com

War Dogs

'War Dogs' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Todd Phillips; Stephen Chin; Jason Smilovic

Directed by: Todd Phillips

The unbelievability factor really works in War Dogs‘ favor. It has given a director of outrageous comedies and indeterminate skill considerable leverage. It has given actors who like playing jackasses free range to be themselves and we would never know the difference because this true story is ridiculous to begin with. For blind devotees of Todd Phillips getting to know the actual truth is not as important as having an approximated version of it delivered in an amusing and crass way.

See, there’s one thing you kind of have to be in order to enjoy movies made by The Guy Who Brought You The Hangover: you have to be easy to please. You need to be unapologetically so. Take the guy who sat behind me and to my right, for example: this man(-child) laughed at damn well every line that came out of Jonah Hill’s mouth. To this satisfied customer, Phillips could not put a foot wrong. You need to be in that mindset if you are to get the intended amount of entertainment out of War Dogs, a dramatic comedy about how two dopes wind up landing a $300 million arms-dealing contract with the American government.

Despite much of the film being heavily fictionalized — the drive through The Triangle of Death and that pit-stop in Fallujah, yeah that never happened . . . although I bet that towel falling off that rich client’s ass did — this bumpy ride across foreign borders and into legal gray areas becomes a pretty good watch. I mean, a lot of this stuff really happened and you just can’t help but become curious as to how and when their ultimate downfall begins. Maybe it’s when they violated the American arms embargo against the Chinese by repackaging 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition — 42-year-old, substandard Chinese bullets to be more accurate. Maybe it’s the fact they forgot to get their boys paid for those efforts. Maybe it’s that both of them — high school buddies Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) — really were just money-hungry douchebags utterly deserving of the stigma attached to their line of work.

Yes, I think it’s that last one, a sense of fatalism, that makes War Dogs entertaining on any level. The peace of mind knowing that no matter what sequences of success-building and montages of money-stockpiling are put in front of us these unlikable, completely out-of-their-depth numbskulls are going to get their comeuppance. Phillips works pretty hard at steering us in another direction though, and yet there is a surprising amount of fun to be had while it lasts. Of course, the whole thing’s rigged with many of his unimaginative storytelling methods, like the lazy voiceover provided by Teller and highly interruptive chaptered segments with cutesy titles like ‘God Bless Dick Cheney’s America’ and ‘That Sounds Illegal.’

His film is based upon a Rolling Stone article later expanded for a novel based on the rise to prominence of Efraim’s start-up company AEY, which would eventually become a major weapons supplier for the Department of Defense. Ultimately AEY totalled $200 million in contracts dealing in ammunition and assault rifles, amongst other weapons, and its demise inspired the government to reevaluate how they would secure contracts for the future. (In other words, gone were the days of hiring stoners to do the dirty work. Fucking pot heads, man.)

Hill and Teller provide an easy repartee that won’t be difficult to find in other, albeit more traditional, stoner comedies. Even if Hill is now typically a decade older in real life than the characters he chooses, he’s still believable as a 21-year-old arms-dealer (or is that gun-runner?) because . . . well, that freedom to believe whatever you want rule as I mentioned above. Believe all of it or believe none of it (both of which would be too extreme of a reaction in my opinion). Teller has gone back to playing less interesting individuals. All he gets to do is set a bad example for husbands and new fathers everywhere. He becomes the guy who has to explain his lies to his wife when the story needs some tension.

Very little about War Dogs‘ presentation or execution strikes you as incendiary but the source material is so outlandish you’d be forgiven for thinking Phillips wanted to make this just for the opportunity to blow certain aspects out of proportion. Casting regular collaborator Bradley Cooper as a shady intermediary named Henry Girard counts as proof. We didn’t need another famous face in the mix but seeing Cooper appear in a war film that’s very, very un-American Sniper is more than a little amusing. I cackled like a hyena* when he states that he’s “not a bad man, but sometimes [he] asks [him]self what a bad man would do.” I’m not sure if I was supposed to, but I did. I felt like my friend in the row behind me there. It took me until the very end of the film, but finally I felt my money had been decently spent.

I guess what I’m saying is that despite my problems with Phillips’ generic brand — though it must be said generic isn’t the same as incompetent, lest we forget things like Old School and yes, The Hangover, two genuinely great comedies — if you give him the right material to run with anything is possible. You might have a really good time if you can let go of preconceived notions for long enough.

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in 'War Dogs'

Recommendation: Further confirmation of Todd Phillips’ unspectacular vision as a filmmaker, War Dogs pursues an outrageous true story with the kind of attitude and conviction fans of his should expect. It’s a passable comedy made more intriguing by the facts, and another good, if loud and obnoxious, performance from Jonah Hill. Not a film you probably want to spend money on if righteous anti-war sentiment is what you seek. And I suppose that’s one more credit to the film: a lack of political lean grounds it somewhat close to neutral. Like Hill’s Efraim says, think of it not as pro- (or anti-) war, but pro-money-making.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “We drive through all triangles . . . including your mom’s.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Captain America: Civil War

'Captain America - Civil War' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 6, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Markus; Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony & Joe Russo

Standing in a line of about 200 rabid fans an hour before the screening I was asked by a woman in line — a hot mom actually — if this was the line for the Avengers movie. I really wanted to tell her, “No, this is for Captain America,” but who am I kidding, this is totally an Avengers movie. And so I was like, “Yeah,” and she was like, “Cool,” and then we both just went back to our lives.

That Captain America: Civil War is closer in spirit to one of those ultra-blockbusters is actually good news for me as I’ve never really stood behind Captain America. The Boy Scout/super-soldier kind of ruffles my feathers for some reason, and that’s through no fault of Chris Evans either. Nevertheless there I was, middle of a mob on a Saturday afternoon, the manufactured product of a month-long brainwashing program designed to win my allegiance toward either Team Steve or Team Tony.

Civil War is a film whose emotional upshot takes an eternity to eventuate, but when it does it’s actually well worth the two-and-a-half-hour sit. Steve and his embattled friend Bucky, a.k.a. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) are at the heart of a complex moral, emotional and psychological battle that divides the Avengers — all but Hulk and Thor, of course, who are off galavanting elsewhere — straight down the middle when they are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, a peacekeeping effort drawn up by the United Nations in response to the concerns of a growing population that thinks the Avengers are doing more harm than good.

After yet another disaster, this time in Wakanda at the hands of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, who has completely given up on trying to sound Russian at this point), in steps Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) to give everyone a choice: either agree to the sanctions, to be potentially overruled in any given situation if it is deemed necessary . . . or retire from the superhero biz.

And then everyone seems to get really mad. Needless to say, the stakes are high this time, higher than they were when Loki was trying to divide and conquer from within all those movies ago, if you can believe it . . . (wasn’t it pretty much doomsday then, too?) One side argues for their continued autonomy while the other, surprisingly spearheaded by a guilt-ridden Tony, believes having a watchdog might help prevent future awkward encounters with any living relatives of people he has inadvertently killed.

Thanks to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, two writers keen to redress familiar characters under this new guise of bitterness, distrust and uncertainty, there are equally compelling reasons to join either camp. In fact as Civil War progresses it gets ever more entrenched in the complexities of this ideological conflict. The appearance of a cold German militant named Baron Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the one behind an earlier attack on the UN that claims the life of Wakanda King T’Chaka, father of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), inspires Steve to ignore new-age protocol as he attempts to stop Zemo from unleashing a secret arsenal of other Winter Soldiers being kept in cryogenic stasis at a Hydra facility in Siberia.

Civil War, like Tony and Steve, has a lot on its plate, but it wisely (and creatively) spreads the workload across its many players. Even if Downey Jr. takes this opportunity to effect a more somber version of his character than we’re used to seeing, that famous acerbic wit is never lost with the integration of Scott Lang/Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and Tom Holland’s amazingly acne-free Peter Parker/Spider Man. Black Panther digs his claws in with menacing presence and a lot of righteous anger. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye returns as do Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Paul Bettany as the visionary . . . Vision.

Even though giving each their time to shine means taking some away from Evans, extended interactions between less famous figures are more than welcome and give these individuals purpose within the context of the cinematic retelling of their own journeys. Bettany is perhaps the highlight, his loyalty to protecting the lone Maximoff twin from destruction following her actions in Wakanda offering a miniaturized version of the conundrum facing Iron Man and Captain America. And then there’s Black Panther’s determination to take out the one responsible for his father’s death.

For all of the potential devastation that is implied Civil War isn’t a dour affair. It doesn’t dwell in misery, and it really could have. There’s a melancholy vibe here, but the Russo brothers seem comfortable conforming to Marvel’s standard of finding levity amidst dire circumstances, injecting humor into scenes that would otherwise trend DC-dark. (God forbid that ever happen.) A movie with ‘war’ in its title going the comedy route is a risky proposition, and though this isn’t devoid moments of weakness, the continued expansion of a world parallel to ours allows them to pass quickly. There’s so much going on that Civil War all but demands repeat viewings. Eight years into the game, that’s a very good thing for the MCU.

I wonder what the hot mom thought about all of it.

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Recommendation: With the slightly-famous actors as comfortable as ever in their respective roles, Civil War benefits from the intersection of emotionally resonant performance and thoughtful, crafty storytelling. People like me — non-Captain fans — benefit greatly from the distraction of the other people around him fighting for what they believe is right for the future of the Avengers. A solid realization of a very complicated time, and the balance struck herein makes it one of my favorites of the entire MCU canon thus far.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 146 mins.

Quoted: “Okay, anybody on our side hiding any shocking, or fantastic abilities they’d like to disclose, I’m open to suggestion.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.touchboyj-hero.deviantart.com; http://www.imdb.com

Midnight Special

'Midnight Special' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 18, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Add Midnight Special to the short but increasingly compelling list of reasons to keep an eye on Jeff Nichols, the director of Mud, an understated drama set on the bayou and one of a select few credited with reinvigorating Matthew McConaughey’s career circa 2013.

Yeah, no big deal. Nichols only ignited a revolution. (Not that the actor hadn’t shown promise before; McConaughey’s dramatic chops in The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe are surely impressive but for the sake of argument let’s just ignore those right now.) It’s been three years since that much-talked about film and the spotlight moves away from the McConaissance and back towards the man in charge: what would he be bringing to the table this year?

Michael Shannon leads the charge in this brilliant genre-defying adventure involving a boy with a special gift that makes him the target of both a government manhunt and a religious cult convinced that the end of days is nigh. Shannon, in a comparably restrained capacity, plays a quietly conflicted man named Roy and is first seen held up in a motel room with his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). (I know, that pairing is almost too good to be true . . .)

They have a child with them, by all accounts a normal-looking pre-teen and apparent fan of comics we first meet wearing blue goggles and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. This is Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher in an incredibly nuanced performance) and we’re not entirely sure whether he’s a victim of a kidnapping. We don’t even know what the men plan to do with him or where (or what) their final destination is.

What we do know is that the boy is precious cargo to both Roy and Lucas, evidenced in how they’re constantly shuffling in and out of the shadows between each location, and that his sudden disappearance from “the farm,” a closed community of religious zealots led by Sam Shepard’s Calvin Meyer and whose female population adheres to a strict dress code (braided hair, long dresses and muted colors), is significant enough to warrant the investigation of Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), a brilliant young NSA investigator working alongside the FBI. In fact the government intervenes during what was presumably going to be another of Meyer’s fire-and-brimstone sermons and begins conducting interviews with many of the members, looking for any leads to the boy’s whereabouts.

Nichols controls the pace of his boldly original screenplay such that we spend much of the earlygoing not even sure where our sympathies ought to lie: the way the government agents threaten the cult with the repercussions of committing high-level treason makes it easier to believe there’s a serious situation unfolding here. (You see, Alton is thought to have prophesied a doomsday event based on a set of numbers, coordinates perhaps, that correspond to the dates and numbers of certain sermons delivered by Father Meyer — numbers he couldn’t possibly know.) On the other hand, Roy and Lucas fail to exhibit any signs of behavior that make us worry for Alton. But just what is their end game? And why can’t Alton be exposed to sunlight?

At its core Midnight Special is a chase movie that pits the trio — soon to be a foursome when Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah, exiled from the farm years ago, enters the picture as a pivotal rest stop for Roy and Lucas late in the story — against a series of strange occurrences that threaten to derail their plans with Alton. There’s more than a whiff of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his brand of romanticizing the unknown even as Nichols continues to ground the ongoing hostage situation in reality. But science fiction isn’t the only flavor you’ll find in this little cinematic confection.

As Nichols continues peeling back the layers, the thick veil of clandestinity falling aside to expose a vision that threatens to become unwieldy — but that which stays on just the right side of ridiculous — we’re treated to a moving family drama as well as a cliffhanger of a government conspiracy thriller, one that bravely explores the borders of where discovery and science mesh up against religion and faith. In fact Midnight Special has so much going on within its relatively efficient hour-and-fifty-minute runtime the temptation to reveal more nifty details poses a greater challenge than does the task of assigning this thing a genre. So many cool things happen that I want to spoil right now.

But I won’t. I’m not that guy. (Or am I?) No, I’m not. But I really, really, really, really want to. Suffice it to say that Nichols’ latest is just one of those rarities that get you excited to tell everyone, including the person you’re sitting next to at the dentist’s office about. It’s an experience I’ve been longing to have for some time. I love Midnight Special, for everything it is and everything it is not. For all of the success it finds in challenging the brain while appealing strongly to the heart. I cannot wait to see what the guy does next.

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Recommendation: Midnight Special marks the fourth film Jeff Nichols has directed (and written, to boot). He’s a promising young talent that likes dealing in real, flesh-and-blood characters and intriguing premises that keep viewers involved from start to finish. It’s also a movie that offers terrific performances, the most pleasantly surprising coming from the increasingly hard to find Kirsten Dunst. If any of that appeals, you need to check this one out. Pronto, Tonto. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “I’m always going to worry about you Alton. That’s the deal.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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Release: Christmas Day 2013

[Theater]

Nelson Mandela. Now there’s a name that has ‘Hollywood movie’ written all over it.

With the passing of such an extraordinary figure a mere month ago, the moment doesn’t seem to be any riper for a major motion picture about him to be sweeping across the globe. While it’s pretty difficult to conceive of this international release date being any more strategic than just being a ‘Christmas Day release’ (that’s a profitable enough decision to begin with), some of the more pessimistic of us are inclined to speculate that perhaps someone on the inside knew about certain developments in their subject’s health, on a medical level, on a level most of us wouldn’t care to know or recognize as being true. With the saddening foresight that this man might not be around for much longer, why not use that as leverage to potentially gain an even bigger audience?

That is, of course, to suggest: what would the box office turn-out be if this film was released, say this past summer? Next summer? Two Septembers from now? Would a later release date help the film fulfill its potential to move audiences?

Most people probably don’t think of movie releases being manipulative. And yet reality dictates that, with a time frame such as this (Mandela dying twenty days prior to the release), the subject would suddenly become more relevant; the potential for emotional connectivity would become much greater. If we didn’t have to come to terms with Nelson Mandela no longer being with us, this Christmas release would otherwise seem a little arbitrary.

Unfortunately, all of that is pure speculation. Some readers are probably shaking their heads at the level of cynicism on display. I don’t blame those people for thinking I’m overanalyzing the situation, but I think I’m going to stand by my conviction that Hollywood’s suits (i.e. some of the happiest people on Earth) really dug the idea of this suddenly becoming a much more timely tribute to Mandela. Especially when the film’s screenplay seems to support my perhaps off-kilter views.

At two hours and twenty minutes in length, Long Walk to Freedom is really a long sit. It overstays its welcome, a concept that must be difficult to believe if you have yet to see this, because it deals with one of the world’s most influential human rights activists. How, pray, does a topic like this wear thin?

Oh, how it does. . .

Written more as a thoroughly-detailed biography special on the History channel, director Justin Chadwick’s ambition isn’t to blame, entirely. As one can imagine, he had to sift through a tremendous wealth of information about the subject and the climate of South African politics of the time, so perhaps the condescendingly low-brow style of the film should be forgiven. Though this too often has the feel of a history class lecture, there’s ultimately nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just not the film most are going to be expecting when it features one of the most rapidly-rising British stars at this moment.

The film is almost saved by London-native Idris Elba’s authentic portrayal of Mr. Mandela. Naomie Harris vies for some potential nominations as well, as she steps inside the role of Winnie Madikizela, Nelson’s second wife, an extremely frustrated woman who turned to more radical and violent measures of fighting for her fellow oppressed people. With both leads clearly committed to giving the film some gravity — Elba’s heavily-covered-in-make-up facial expressions are on multiple occasions heartbreaking and are effective in visually demonstrating the burden the real life figured carried with him for his long, long life — Long Walk can’t be dismissed completely as a ‘bad’ film.

Perhaps a more accurate description of the experience is underwhelming, which is a crime unto itself. Chadwick makes sure he maintains a reasonable number of inspirational quotes from the man himself, but it looks like we, the folks who were hoping to learn something about this iconic figure, might have to wait a few more years before being treated to the proper Mandela biopic. With absolutely no offense to the two lead performers — since they are virtually the only reason this film bears significance at all — Long Walk feels much too rushed, another sign this was a product of emphatic marketing to the public.

Elba and Harris do all they can with the material, but even their own personal, strong convictions about who their characters were drown in a sea of mediocrity and obligatory sentimentality.

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2-5Recommendation: It’s hardly an offensive film, even considering how middling the end results are. If you know literally nothing about the man (if that’s the case, shame on you) you will come away with a newfound respect for the struggles of these people and this man in particular. But if you’ve done any research whatsoever about this troubling bit of history, you’re not likely to be as moved by his dramatized on-screen plight. And to me, that just ain’t right.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “No person is ever born hating another person because of the color of their skin. People learn to hate. They are taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Enemy of the State (1998)

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With After Earth taking a plunge into less-than-mediocre territory since its opening a couple months back, Will Smith seemed there for awhile to be part of a conversation that I’m not used to him being included in. His judgment has been seriously questioned and criticized ever since getting his son on as the lead role in the most recent M. Night Disappointment. It’s weird to hear the bashing because if you consider his career of role choices, they’ve consistently been big, badass and mostly quite successful. He’s typecast as all hell, but he’s a fun typecast that usually elevates any given movie’s quality that he happens to be a part of. I haven’t seen After Earth myself, so I don’t know how good/bad young Jaden Smith’s limited acting chops were here. I am aware of how limited Big Will’s role was, however. The consensus seems to be that while at times the young actor fits into the moment, he’s simply not developed enough yet to carry a role this significant. Hence, some of the questioning: maybe, just maybe — did the Fresh Prince misjudge the situation? 

It doesn’t matter. July has now turned into Will Smith month. Each throwback post will be about a classic Big Willie-style flick — we began with Independence Day.

Today’s food for thought: Enemy of the State

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Release: November 20, 1998

[VHS]

Will Smith exercises good judgment here by tempering his Bad Boys persona (which I’m imagining is far closer to his actual personality) in order to let his dramatic side come through in the form of Robert Clayton Dean, an attorney whose daily life quickly changes when he finds himself caught in a dangerous game between a ruthless mafia boss and the unexpected proponents of a government conspiracy theory.

Enemy of the State is violent, complex (for a film that is decidedly more action than it is drama) and intelligent blockbusters you’ll see with Will Smith’s name attached. He is but one piece of a large puzzle in this story about a government aiming to cut into the lives of the public with greater ease, an effort to inflate anti-terrorist sentiment. Director Tony Scott may occasionally dive into melodramatic territory here, but for most of the time, the drama and tension really keep the film afloat aside from the occasional lull in action. Even these moments are rich with sharp and poignant commentary. We get healthy doses of edgy jabs aimed at the government, about as much as we do get your typical action schtick. . . not to mention, a robust performance from Scott’s impressive ensemble cast.

Aside from Smith, we have the legendary Gene Hackman — here playing the ex-NSA agent Edward Lyle, a.k.a “Brill;” Jon Voight is once again not one to truffle with as the opprobrious Congressman Thomas Reynolds; his shady NSA correspondents include the likes of Barry Pepper, Jake Busey, Scott Caan, Jack Black and Seth Green; and we have Tom Sizemore playing the mobster boss Pintero who makes for a great adversary against not only Dean but the treacherous politician as well. The trio of Smith, Voight and Sizemore spearhead a cast that is performing at the top of its game — Jack Black and Seth Green also are surprisingly restrained in this film and are great to watch if ever we have forgotten that the two can take on serious roles for a change. (For Jack Black, see Bernie, also.)

When a tape that contains footage of the murder of a high-level government official falls into Dean’s bag one afternoon while he’s out shopping for a gift for his wife, members of the NSA invade Dean’s life with a swath of technological devices to gain intimate information about him. After losing most of his dearest assets, including the trust of his wife Carla and his job with the law firm, Dean recruits the help of Lyle. Initially opposed to the idea of coming out of retirement for Dean’s sake, Lyle decides to cooperate in making Dean a formidable enemy of his state — stripping him of the bugs and other tracking devices, then turning the NSA’s tactics against them and Congressman Reynolds. The pair’s effort to prove Dean’s innocence (and save his life) would also be a last-ditch effort to prove that the tape implicates both the Congressman and Pintero. While the final showdown occurs in a secluded mafia kitchen, the location is right across the street from an FBI secure location. As it turns out, Dean has adopted some of the craft and skill that Lyle used in his days as an NSA employee; he forms a plan that ends up ultimately leveling the playing field for good, allowing him and Lyle to walk away clean.

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid, getting into his car. . .

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid in an elevator. . .

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid in a lingerie store. . .

A lot of what makes this movie so compelling is the fast-paced tempo. And, okay, yes — the large doses of action/chase sequences on display. Largely though, these are second to the fact that Enemy of the State delves into a subject matter that is 1) disconcerting and 2) original. Watching our lead character being stripped of his basic civil liberties makes for an exciting albeit, disturbingly personal, experience. Though the film is an exaggeration, it is interesting to sit and contemplate how many traffic cameras there are on intersections; how many speed cameras; how many crooked businessmen are out there; how politically-motivated crimes can (and do) get covered up (and how many are). There’s relevance to this storyline, and some realities might be just as chilling as the events that unfold in the film.

Scott’s successful late-90s entry into the sizable action thriller genre is also quite the stylish one. Snappy, tight editing and color schemes contribute a genuine conspiratorial vibe to the picture. It features scenes where Fiedler (Black) and his cohorts are establishing ways to identify the missing videotape — there’s some great technological plugs here, insights into how organizations like NSA operate (even if these people are corrupt in the movie). The appeal of the metro D.C. area is rather dirty and grimy. The retreat back into Lyle’s warehouse when the pair are being hunted down by NSA agents is yet another dark, drab accent.

Fortunately for me, my life is nowhere near this active or high-profile, so I won’t have to be worrying about turning a corner and being instantly and brutally interrogated. Nor do I need to be concerned about tracking devices planted in the heels of my shoes, in my shirt pockets or in my fire detectors at home. But while I’m at it, I’m just going to check the T.V. to make sure I don’t see my face on any channel. . .

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4-0Recommendation: This is one of Will Smith’s greatest movies, and perhaps one of his finer performances as well. If you’re an adrenaline junkie like me, Enemy of the State is a classic. Unlike me, you should have it on DVD by now and have watched it quite a few times since. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 132 mins.

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