Parasite

Release: Friday, November 8, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Bong Joon Ho; Jin Won Han

Directed by: Bong Joon Ho

I don’t know why, or how, I have never seen a Bong Joon Ho movie before now. The South Korean filmmaker is one of those major voices of world cinema that’s hard to ignore. Yet here I am, crawling out from underneath a (scholar’s) rock. And I wonder if all his movies are quite as metaphorical as Parasite? Or as good. Even if they aren’t he already has a fan in me; you all know how much I love metaphors. Even if they aren’t exactly subtle.

Parasite is a brilliant allegory for class warfare that to’s and fro’s between homes, between worlds and between seemingly disparate genres. The story, collaborated on by Ho and screenwriter Jin Won Han, focuses on the relationship between two families existing on opposite ends of the wealth spectrum. As you might suspect from the title, we are supposed to feel a certain way about that relationship, maybe even take sides. Ascertaining who the real bad and good guys are — or, if you like to play the metaphor game like I do, as we are perhaps intended here, who the real “parasites” and “hosts” are — is kind of the whole point of the exercise. Judging who is actually being victimized proves thrillingly challenging when every character is shaded with a moral grayness, when there is more going on beneath the surface than what first appears.

Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is the sloven patriarch of the Kim clan. He’s fallen on hard times with his restaurant business having collapsed. He has absolutely no prospects of securing regular income, but he does have the love of his family. His wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin), disaffected twentysomething daughter Ki-jeong (Park So Dam) and college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo Sik) help him fold pizza boxes as a way to make some pennies. They steal wifi from upstairs (you just have to find the right corner in the right room) and allow themselves to be swallowed whole by the debris storms blown in from outside as street cleaners effectively double as fumigation for their semi-basement-level apartment.

Ki-taek can only see it as a blessing when a family friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), one day comes by and gifts Ki-woo a “scholar’s rock,” which he says will bring material wealth to those in possession of it. Ki-woo views it as more metaphorical (then again, he says that about everything). That same friend later offers Ki-woo a job opportunity — he’s leaving the country to study abroad and needs someone to replace him as a tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Parks, who are apparently “nice but gullible.” For Ki-woo, who’s tired of combatting the homeless who like to urinate near their kitchen window, this is a no-brainer; he just needs some important documents to be forged and to make a good impression during the interview.

After gaining the Parks’ trust Ki-woo puts into motion an ambitious plan to get other members of his family involved. One by one they will each take on a different role serving this well-to-do household. Chauffeurs, live-in nannies, art therapists — opportunity abounds here. If all goes according to plan, something Papa Kim does not like to do as he thinks plans always fail, they will pull this off without ever being suspected of being related. What results goes beyond the most ingenious home invasion scheme you’ve ever seen; this is more like a life invasion — a long con of increasing boldness as the Kims set about vicariously living that sweet life, feeling very little remorse over the things they have done to ingratiate themselves into a world in which they seemingly do not belong.

Parasite made history at Cannes last year, becoming the first Korean film to take home the coveted Palme d’Or, the swanky film festival’s top prize.* I’m really not trying to invoke Ron Burgundy here but it’s kind of a big deal. Some fans have even renamed the honor the ‘Bong d’Or.’ So that’s been fun, and Parasite has been a fun movie to follow. It’s become a buzz word, a fashionable Google search ever since it first premiered, with Ho at the center of a lot of Oscartalk. Can he vie for one of those, too? Or is that just asking too much?

I tell you what would be asking too much: wanting more than what he delivers in his seventh feature film. The intrigue factor is ratcheted up constantly by a smart concept, a camera that moves voyeuristically through the intricacies of gorgeous, purpose-built sets, and Ho’s confident, playful direction. How he keeps Parasite from tipping completely into serendipity is no small feat, even though there are one or two elements here that threaten to cross the line (basement-operated light-switches, anyone? What architect thought that was a good idea?). Performances are uniformly excellent, and on multiple levels.

What’s most impressive is how Parasite fashions incredible entertainment out of a sobering reality. Ho is clearly sympathetic to the struggles of the working class and he’s put together a movie that’s both cultural and universal. This is the product of a director who has spent some 50 years watching his home transform from one of the poorest to among the most advanced industrial economies in the world. While Parasite certainly speaks to the direness of the Korean class divide its greatest strength is how it feels accessible as a human drama about dignity and decency.

* it also became THE FIRST KOREAN Film TO HAVE WON A GOLDEN GLOBE AWARD.

“….did I leave the house unlocked again?”

Recommendation: For this Bong Joon Ho newbie, Parasite is among the best movies of 2019. It’s a scathing indictment of the capitalist system that also happens to be blisteringly entertaining. Its message is creatively and powerfully delivered without being obnoxious. If you enjoy movies with sophisticated plots and that do not fit neatly into any one particular genre, Parasite should burrow deep into your skin. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “They’re rich but they’re still nice . . .”

“They’re nice because they’re rich!”

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Photo credits: IMDb 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Release: Friday, October 19, 2018 (limited) 

→Theater

Written by:  Nicole Holofcener; Jeff Whitty

Directed by: Marielle Heller

Can You Ever Forgive Me? reflects on the life and crimes of Leonore Carol Israel, a Brooklyn-based journalist who, despite making an honest living in the 1970s and ’80s writing biographies of high-profile women, one time even landing on the New York Times Bestseller list, is remembered today for her misguided — indeed, criminal — attempts at career resurrection by way of embellishing and forging literary items on behalf of deceased authors and other famous people. SNL alumna Melissa McCarthy takes on the challenge of portraying the curmudgeonly woman, and the results simply beg the question: where has this Melissa McCarthy been all this time?

In her sophomore feature, director Marielle Heller returns with a familiarly but still surprisingly sympathetic treatment of a subject who might have otherwise come out looking a lot worse in the hands of another filmmaker. Her 2015 début, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was rightfully praised for how it approached its taboo material (premature sex with an incestuous twist; drug-addled, laissez-faire parenting styles) with maturity and blunt honesty. In the process it introduced audiences to the talents of young British actress Bel Powley, who demonstrated confidence beyond her years with the way she handled such seedy material. With her follow-up feature it almost feels like Heller is giving us another formal introduction, this time to Melissa McCarthy the thespian, not the physical punchline she has become typecast as.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based upon and named after the memoir Israel published in 2008, an unapologetic and humorously self-deprecating tell-all about the mischief she got into after the ’90s arrived and brought with them the winds of change, an evolving market rendering her celebrity bios a thing of the past. Interestingly, the publishing of that very memoir as well as the publisher itself, Simon & Schuster, faced criticism as many viewed it to be merely another cash grabbing opportunity by a recognized poseur.

The film picks up right as Israel is falling on hard times, getting the boot from a late-night copy editing job, one in a string of failed attempts to secure a more reliable source of income. She shuffles back to an apartment apropos of a recluse, a poorly lit cavern smelling to high heaven as a result of long-sitting cat poop that has also drawn flies like a biblical plague. That cat, her best friend, is in desperate need of medical attention, but that’s a luxury for someone like Israel, whose abrasive personality turns off just about everyone she comes across — including the vet, with whom she unsuccessfully attempts to haggle. Rare exceptions are an old friend in Jack Hock (a wonderful Richard E. Grant) and Anna, a cheery bookstore owner (Dolly Wells).

Of the few (and strained) relationships she has, arguably the rockiest is with Marjorie (Jane Curtain), her agent. She takes the brunt of the hostility largely due to the writer believing she isn’t doing all that she can to get her Fanny Brice book off the ground. As Marjorie reminds her, it’s the 1990s and no one’s pining for biographies of 1920s vaudeville starlets. Exasperated, Israel turns to selling off what few personal possessions she has, including a letter written to her by actress Katherine Hepburn, an apparent acquaintance. However, it isn’t until she discovers another letter, this one by the very subject of her new project tucked inside a relevant book, that a lightbulb appears above Israel’s head.

What if I jazz these letters up, add more of a personal touch to them? I wouldn’t pass them off as my own creations, but rather as original insights of long since passed playwrights and authors. And I’ll use a variety of typewriters to create the desired effects. Genius, no? You know what, save your opinions. I know it’s genius. If you never forgive me, c’est la vie. 

Heller, working from a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, has created an intimate character study that foregrounds a minimal, lonely existence against the hustle and bustle of New York. There’s less than a handful of significant characters involved, but their interactions are meaningful and tinged with a profound sadness, an emptiness, a longing for something more. Everyone in the movie brings their A-game, but McCarthy is simply a revelation as the caustically witted writer.

So good is she, in fact, that you tend to overlook what Grant brings to the scene as Jack Hock, an aging rapscallion who has suffered his own fair share of heartbreak in the past and faces a great deal of hardship in the present. A gay man about town, he lives day to day for new adventures, scrounging for happiness in an era where people avoided celebrities like basketball star Magic Johnson because they didn’t want their sickness to literally rub off on them. When he conspires with a miscreant, now selling “her work” to every literary dealer in town, he finds a new lease on life. Together, the two form a kindred spirit that gives what could have been a cold movie a surprisingly warm, beating heart.

Israel’s fate may be obvious, even before the killjoys from the FBI show up, but it is a testament to the performances and the steady, confident direction supplied by Heller that we get swept up in the misadventure and actually enjoy the ride, in spite of all the misery.

Who you gonna call?

Recommendation: Reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, this is a deeply human drama about personal and professional dignity, of failure and success. It’s one of my favorite movies of 2018, by far. Can You Ever Forgive Me? will win you over with performances that are both heartbreaking and mischievously entertaining.

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “This next song goes out to all the agoraphobic junkies who couldn’t be here tonight.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Foreigner

Release: Friday, October 13, 2017

→Theater 

Written by: David Marconi

Directed by: Martin Campbell

Martin Campbell has been behind two of my all-time favorite Bond movies, Casino Royale and Goldeneye (incidentally two films that also saw a changing of the guard amongst the ranks of the 00 elite), and now he’s responsible for one of my favorite Jackie Chan movies ever. The Legend is back, and as The Foreigner he’s kicking ass and taking names in ways we haven’t seen before.

Before going any further, before my bias toward the Kiwi’s new movie renders me a totally unreliable resource, I should point out that this is the same director who made Vertical Limit, the face-palming result of woefully apparent and inadequate research that turned the rock climbing community into the laughingstock of audiences everywhere. The critical and commercial failure that was Green Lantern in 2011 further sullied the good Campbell name. Fortunately those are stains that have come out in the wash. The Foreigner is his first theatrical release since then, and it’s one of his best.

The New Zealand-born filmmaker is arguably an entertainer first and a director second, as not even his lesser output — Vertical frikkin’ Limit included — fail to provide at least some degree of escapism. The Foreigner offers something a little different in that regard. Though the movie does at some point become farcical, the viewer can’t afford to completely detach, much less get comfortable, for it is the gnarly landscape of our present reality over which the narrative cautiously treads. Steeped in the world of dastardly complex politics in an age of global terrorism, the story tells of a retired Vietnam War special forces op named Quan (Chan) who seeks justice for his daughter who is killed in a London department store bombing.

Hong Kong’s biggest action star subverts roughly 30 years of expectation by portraying a father pushed to the brink of sanity, a man who tiptoes the line of morality in his quest to expose the identities of the culprits — a group who call themselves “The Authentic IRA.” In The Foreigner, Chan goes full-on Liam Neeson, a brute force awakened from slumber whose very particular set of skills, shaped by his survival of Vietnamese internment camps as well as a life overflowing with personal tragedy, are called upon when he finally loses everything. So, yeah. Rush Hour this ain’t. Reportedly Campbell had to make two separate trips to China in order to convince Chan this is a role he should take.

Not everything is unfamiliar. At 63, and in post-Lifetime Achievement Award territory, Chan is still risking life and limb for the sake of bona fide performance art. The stunts aren’t as spectacular as they once were, that’s true, but I’ll run that number by you again. He’s 63 and still jumping out of second-floor windows, narrowly avoiding death like a parkour expert in their early 20s. It’s as if death wishes are part of some non-negotiable clause in Chan’s career contract. Separating this role from most, however, is that added edge of emotion that sees that mischievous grin of his traded in for a face twisted in grief and pain.

Chan’s not the only one turning in a surprisingly impactful performance. Quan’s queries, which in the language of these familiar action movies become obsessions, eventually lead him into the office of Irish deputy minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan). He’s an intimidating man with a dark history to match, one made public by his own admission but the true extent to which it remains relevant becomes a mystery only Quan seems prepared (or desperate enough) to investigate. Aging suits Brosnan well, particularly in a more complex role like this where he appears to be bad at keeping the peace — let all The Troubles be forgot — but better at playing the sadistic puppeteer.

As the story unfolds it relies increasingly on these performances. Throughout we become bombarded with subplots detailing the total lack of trust between the Irish and the British, where acts of terrorism are perpetrated in the name of government favors and special interests. There’s a lot of orchestration going on behind the scenes, most memorably highlighted in an intensely heated exchange between Hennessy and a rogue IRA member played by Dermot Crowley. In the end, it’s the cat-and-mouse game between the film’s two stars that gives us reason to invest. The politics may become a bit silly, but these guys really aren’t fucking around. I enjoyed The Foreigner probably more than I should have, for that reason alone.

Recommendation: Fans of The Legend and the James Bond that M once lovingly called “a relic of the Cold War” should have a lot of time for a movie like The Foreigner. As a story it’s familiar, but Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan challenge the assertion that a cliché movie is a bad movie.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Politicians and terrorists, they are just two ends of the same snake. What’s the difference?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

Wind River

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Wind River is a haunting little crime thriller that creeps into your soul and nestles there. It’s brought to you by the writer of Sicario and last year’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, which may tell you everything you need to know about this movie, based on true events about a tracker working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services who teams up with a rookie FBI agent to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the death of a young Native American woman.

The journeyman actor-turned-screenwriter trades the scorching temperatures of the southern U.S. for the bitter chill of wintry Wyoming. Tumbleweeds for evergreens; cowboy hats for furry down jackets. The harsh terrain changes but Sheridan, who has proven his worth in a very limited amount of time, fortunately does not. He remains committed to the same gritty, humanistic perspective that has helped identify him as among the most powerful emergent voices in Hollywood.

As we have come to be spoiled by the writer-director, certain things are givens: impeccable acting, complex morality, sympathetic tonality. Wind River operates most apparently as a straightforward police procedural but that’s just the part of the iceberg that’s visible. What the screenplay hides beneath the surface is where the film is at its most affecting, not just as a deeply nuanced exploration of personal grief but as damning evidence of the marginalization of Native Americans.

Wind River tells a story about fictional people; however, as a title card at the end of the film suggests, this could be the story of any one of the thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of women who have disappeared from Indian reservations across the country. As of today, it is not known how many Native American women go missing or what even becomes of them, as they remain the only demographic for which the U.S. Department of Justice does not compile that data.

While Kelsey Asbille as the victim — a teenaged resident named Natalie — provides a face to these unknowns, Jeremy Renner proves once again to be a major comfort. He injects warmth into an environment characterized by precisely the opposite. His Cory Lambert has earned the trust and respect of many of the residents of Wind River, a plot of land in central-western Wyoming home to members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Cory’s dedicated years to protecting them and their livestock from the predatory animals that roam this yawning expanse of pillowy hills and knife-edge ridges. Of course, he has done this at the expense of his own family, a familiar but still effective flaw of character that grafts perfectly with the film’s thematic explorations.

Cory’s commitment to the community deepens when FBI Special Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up on the scene, determined to take control of what appears to her to be a sexual assault case. Her woeful unpreparedness for the conditions, though initially played off as broadly humorous, ultimately proves to be the first of many obstacles that will truly test her resolve. Gender dynamics come into play as Banner has something to prove as an outsider in this world. Olsen plays her hand perfectly, her sizable ego soon humbled by taking bullets in subzero temperatures and by listening to the stories of the people who call this frozen hell home.

Renner is reliable and Olsen makes for interesting company, but you cannot overlook Gil Birmingham, who re-teams with Sheridan after playing the butt of every Jeff Bridges joke in Hell or High Water. That’s in stark contrast to his brief but dramatically hefty role here, in which he portrays the victim’s father as a man consumed by grief. An early scene in which Banner is cringingly unaware of her aggressive style confesses to the delicate nature of her assignment. It’s a traumatic moment, with Birmingham’s not-so-quiet sobbing memorably given privacy by remaining just out of shot.

The locals call Wind River the “land of you’re on your own.” That’s a harsh lesson for Banner to have to take back with her to Las Vegas, but for everyone else it’s just a fact of life. As a boy who grew up on a ranch before his family lost it to the economic downturn of the 1990s, Sheridan has a pretty firm grasp on man’s relationship with mother nature and how tenuous a relationship it is. That manifests powerfully here as well, but Wind River evolves into something much more personal and even profound than a tale of survival. That old Darwinian theory is a byproduct of the story, but it’s not the story.

Wind River is about being found, being recognized. Being heard. And the heavy sigh in which the film ends echoes back decades of silence. The kind of silence that kills, by madness or by wolf, by pulmonary edema or just plain-old ignorance.

Recommendation: Taylor Sheridan rewards viewers once again with an absorbing, emotionally stirring and deeply disturbing crime drama based on real events. Both a tribute to the untold number of victims as well as a culture that has had indignity upon indignity heaped upon it since the appearance of Anglo-American settlers, Wind River feels especially timely if you take into consideration recent headlines, such as those involving the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their continued battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself. I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just . . it hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away. That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away. The instructor comes up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, ‘I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. Your daughter’s gone. Now the good news: as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, you’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?’ He said, ‘that’s what not accepting this will rob from you.’ If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain. Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

Blue Jay

blue-jay-poster

Release: Friday, October 7, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Mark Duplass

Directed: Alex Lehmann

In Blue Jay, Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson make a little adventure out of being a couple long since broken up. When the former high school sweethearts bump into each other at a grocery store in their hometown after 20 years, they spend an entire movie — the first in a four-movie deal Duplass has recently inked with Netflix — taking a stroll down memory lane.

It’s actually a wonderful conceit and who better to handle the walking and talking and thick-beard-charmery than Mark Duplass? Looking fresh off the set of a Carhartt commercial (yet well within the definition of a typical mumblecorian protagonist), he stars as a 30-something-year-old blank slate barely named Jim at the beginning of the film. Over the course of a breezy 80 minutes we will come to know more about him through his awkward-then-amazing interactions with co-star Sarah Paulson, who plays his high school girlfriend, Amanda.

The two find themselves back in their native Crestline, California for different reasons. A conversation over coffee soon reveals just how many other things have changed in their lives. But their genuine attraction to one another has clearly endured. They slip right back into roles they have long since vacated as they go about town reminiscing about their youth and “uncool-ness,” enjoying the most romantic not-date anyone has ever experienced.

Throughout we become privy to a series of revelations that intimate a shared past filled with joy but one not devoid of pain. The question looms ever larger despite (or perhaps because of) all the fun being had: what could have possibly caused such kindred spirits to drift apart?

While Duplass has a screenwriting credit, the foggy haze of memory and nostalgia is realized through a combination of improvised dialogue and intuitive performance. As is true for any low-budget indie, well-made or not, the experimental approach carries with it a significant risk of failure. Blue Jay was also shot in black-and-white on a camera originally designed for military use. This would all seem like a tick-list of indie affectations had the film shown no interest in connecting with its audience.

Blue Jay is quite a lot more than artifice. It’s a perpetually enlightening experience chiefly concerned with the way we romanticize the past, particularly past relationships. Jim and Amanda prove that reconciliation is possible if you really want it. (I guess you also have to be a little lucky, too.) I wanted for this to go on longer. Eighty minutes simply isn’t enough when you’re in the company of people who are as adorkable as Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson.

dance-party-with-mark-duplass-and-sarah-paulson

4-0Recommendation: Bittersweet indie film is tailor-made for fans of Mark Duplass’ unique sensibilities. It’s also a great showcase for Sarah Paulson, who steps into a role I don’t think I’ve ever seen her play before. Blue Jay gives us so many different ways of dealing with the pain that inevitably comes with the break-up. In that way the movie is pretty inspiring. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 80 mins.

Quoted: “Are you going to be the first female white rapper to open for Public Enemy?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

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

Fences

fences-movie-poster

Release: Christmas Day 2016

[Theater] 

Written by: August Wilson

Directed by: Denzel Washington

In 1987 American playwright August Wilson won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his 1950s Pittsburgh-set drama Fences. It employed James Earl Jones as a surly 53-year-old garbage man who led the audience down a dark path littered with heartbreaking revelations about the black experience in a racially divided America. In 2010 Denzel Washington helped to revive Wilson’s work, and after a 13-week engagement the effort proved worthwhile, picking up ten Tony nominations and winning three. Six years later the action superstar has decided to transfer the material to the silver screen.

Washington’s reverence for the original is so apparent if you are like me you can only assume the production does its source material justice. I mean, how does it not? If anything there’s an overcommitment to facsimile. Fences isn’t very cinematic, despite strong efforts from a promotional campaign to make it so. But static, relatively uninventive camerawork and minimalist settings are not enough to take Fences down. The film features one of the year’s most impressive tandems of performances, realized through a series of meaty monologues that pierce at the heart and soul of a thoroughly broken man and his family.

The story is about a garbage man named Troy Maxson (Washington reprising the role he played in 2010) who struggles to reconcile his present with his past. Though he eventually becomes Pittsburgh’s first black garbage truck driver Troy is bitterly disappointed in the way his life has turned out — his failure to realize his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player lying at the heart of his existential crisis. Troy experienced some success as a prominent player in the Negro leagues, but with the passing of time and the social climate of the country being as it was, nothing came of it. World-weary and prideful to a fault, Troy refuses to watch his sons go down the same path he did. He attempts to instill in them not so much the fear of God but the fear of consequences of one’s own lack of personal responsibility.

In a period where opportunities for whites are in far greater abundance than those for blacks, Troy believes his sons need to support themselves with “real jobs,” rather than pursue what he views as pipe dreams. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his eldest son from a previous marriage, aspires to be a musician but he seems to rely more on his girlfriend’s income to get by. One day he believes he’ll make enough to support himself. But at the age of 34 Troy can’t stand seeing him show up at the house on his payday ‘begging for hand-outs.’ On principal, he refuses to lend his son $10. Boy does that get awkward.

Washington’s performance dominates the narrative and arguably to a fault. A fault that, I’m not sure if humorously but certainly oddly, mirrors Troy’s fundamentally domineering nature that renders him as a character with whom others in the story often clash. The Denzel-favoring dialogue can be an endurance test at first but it helps that the writing is so poignant and perpetually working to shed light on many aspects that made this period in American history so turbulent. It also helps that Denzel is a revelation, the cantankerous Troy Maxson perhaps the zenith of an impressive career featuring Frank Lucas, Detective Alonzo Harris and the estranged father of Jesus Shuttlesworth himself.

As icy as his relationship is with Lyons, the film chiefly preoccupies itself with the tension that exists between Troy and his younger and more physically gifted son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who claims he has college recruits interested in offering him a scholarship to play football. Troy won’t let Cory play out of a combination of jealousy and similar concerns over the legitimacy of such a career. Coaxed by a few too many sips from a cheap bottle of some godawfuliquor, fears of his son actually finding the success that eluded him chip away at a slowly crumbling man. But the more sobering reality of the racial prejudices of the day are what convince Troy his son will never play. Either way, he’s not signing any forms he is handed. Meanwhile his wife doesn’t understand why the kid can’t have some fun and try to lead a normal life.

Though she’s half the chatty Cathy her co-star is, Viola Davis is no less Denzel’s equal as she offers an understated but full-bodied interpretation of Rose Maxson, a woman similarly jaded by life having had to sacrifice personal goals so she could make life work with this man. She’s hardly bitter about it; she loves Troy deeply. In the wake of a heartbreaking revelation, Davis emotes with stunning sincerity as she reminds us of her humanity, what the difficult choices she had to make have meant to her. It’s a reaction made all the more powerful given her extraordinary composure as she witnesses the increasing hostility between her husband and their growing children. When she’s not being playing the part of peacemaker she’s providing them the love her husband refuses to.

It should be noted several of the performers beyond the two leads who took the stage in 2010 have reprised their roles here. They’re also extremely effective in more limited capacities. They include Hornsby as Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono, a longtime friend and coworker of Troy’s who enjoys a good swig every now and then while listening to one of Troy’s many tall tales about wrestling the Grim Reaper into submission when he outlasted a near-fatal bout of pneumonia as a youngster, and Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s war-scarred younger brother Gabriel.

Self-contained, talky sociopolitical drama is very much a play caught on camera with several theatrical accouterments on display. The stage manifests as the backyard of the Maxson family, a cramped space nestled deep within a financially struggling African-American community. It is here where we are dealt some of the film’s heaviest blows as wars of words erupt as the film’s “action scenes,” if you will. A baseball tied to a tree and a bat become props whose significance (and versatility) evolve and become more integral to the story. Music is almost entirely absent, save for a few melancholic interjections from composer Marcelo Zarvos. And like with plays, we come to see the people; intimate sets with a reserved production design allows the actors to take center stage.

Purists might argue it’s just not the same as watching thespians in the flesh. They might liken this experience to listening to old jazz records on an iPhone. Even if what I just watched was simply a play filmed on an expensive camera, if this is the only way I’ll ever be able to see August Wilson’s brutally honest work, I’m not sure how much I would feel like I had lost out. I was constantly engrossed.

ten-dolla

4-5Recommendation: Dramatic showcase for the likes of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis — heck, for everyone involved honestly — proves a welcome new addition to the steadily growing oeuvre of some of Hollywood’s most prominent black actors. Fences rewards patient viewers with an intensely dialogue-driven journey into the heart and soul of an African-American father and family living during a shameful chapter in American history. Worth the two hours if you are a fan of talky pictures. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins.

Quoted: “Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you! Now, I gave everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked that out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?”

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

Manchester By the Sea

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Release: Friday, November 18, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Kenneth Lonergan

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan

A good movie offers escapism. A better movie makes us think. But some of the best movies don’t necessarily allow us the luxury of escape. They challenge us to face the world that actually includes us, holding a mirror up to our own realities and daring us to keep looking closer. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is one such movie, a stunningly perceptive drama that’s not only technically impressive but emotionally heavy-hitting as well. Despite almost unrelenting bleakness, it just well may be the year’s most relatable movie.

The titular town is not much more than a small port, a few fishing boats and about as many red lights; a crusty blue-collar town clinging to the Massachusetts coast hardened by more than just brutal winters. It doesn’t announce itself as a happening place, but for one man who once called this harbor home, everything that ever mattered to him happened here. In this most unexpected of places we will, through a series of devastating revelations, be reminded of a few brutal truths about the human experience.

The film pairs its creaky, rundown setting with subtle (but powerful) performances to effect an intentionally mundane aesthetic. It tells of a man named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) who reluctantly becomes his nephew’s guardian when the boy’s father (Lee’s brother Joe who is, confusingly enough, portrayed by Kyle Chandler) passes away suddenly. The premise may seem simple at first but it is pregnant with complexity and nuance. Lee leads a spectacularly unspectacular life in Boston, making minimum wage as a custodian for an apartment block. It’s perhaps not the most ideal line of work for someone trying to avoid people at all costs, but it’s pretty darn close. Aloof in the extreme and prone to violent outbursts, Lee is not a protagonist we immediately embrace. He’s actually kind of a jackass: spurning women’s advances and getting into bar fights because someone gives him the wrong look.

But there’s a method to the madness. Working from a screenplay he originally intended to be his sole contribution to the production, Lonergan steadily reveals layers to a character in a protracted emotional crisis. Flashbacks play a crucial role in the process. Lee is first evaluated as a worker, as a pee-on to the average white-collar Bostonian. A series of interactions Lee tries not to have with his clients — tenants whose lights have broken, whose toilets have clogged, whose bathtubs need sealant and whose goodwill is eroded by the man’s social awkwardness — gives us the impression Lee kinda just hates his job. But the bitterness runs a bit deeper than that. He seems to have a genuine disdain for the human race.

Manchester By the Sea uses flashbacks both as a gateway to the past and as our exclusive access into the mind of a thoroughly depressed individual. The cutaways occur incredibly naturally, manifesting as a sort of internal response to external stress. A visit with the lawyer to get his brother’s affairs in order proves to be a particularly sensitive trigger. What to do with the family boat, the house and other possessions, funeral arrangements — the whole headache rekindles feelings he would rather not have. This moment sends us on a trip down memory lane and into the drama’s darkest moments. What Lee has apparently been coping with for years — what ultimately drove a wedge between him and his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) — proves bitterly poignant.

On the other side of this flashback we view Lee as a different person. Not that our empathy is garnered in one fell swoop, but looking back, if we were to point to a specific moment when our perception started to evolve, it undoubtedly is this epiphany. It is here where we start to view his world through a much darker, cloudier lens. Back in his hometown and daunted by new, unexpected responsibilities — most notably looking after his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) — Lee is also left with little choice but to confront his demons and try to stake a new path forward. But is he really up to the task? How would we deal with all of this?

Manchester By the Sea evokes its strongest emotional and psychological responses from its characters. The narrative certainly stimulates the mind, but the people are what appeal to the heart. Affleck plays a man who seems tailor-made for the actor’s unusual real-life persona. His controversial behavior in his private life (at least as of late) makes the transition into playing an emotionally unstable anti-hero a less surprising one. Gossip is pretty useless really, but is it not ironic Affleck has allowed a few of his own character defects to become things for public consumption in the run-up to the release of a film featuring a severely flawed character? Gossip is also useless because I am only assuming he’s fired his publicist. He’s probably done that in spite of claims that he “doesn’t care about fame.”

And this is stupid because all of this is just padding my word count. As is this.

Before my ADHD gets the better of me, other names are certainly deserving of what remains of this page space. Hedges and Williams in particular make strong cases for Oscars consideration. The former introduces a compelling new dynamic and the perfect foil for Lee’s anti-socialite. Popular in school, on the hockey team, a member of a garage band and currently juggling two girlfriends, Patrick is the antithesis of his uncle. He makes an effort to connect with others. Aspects of his personality and his attitude are going to feel familiar, but this is far from the archetypal teenage annoyance. Williams, in a limited but unforgettable supporting role as the estranged ex-wife, mines emotional depths equal to her co-star who is given ten times the amount of screen time. That’s not to detract from what Affleck has accomplished. Quite simply the actress achieves something here that’s difficult to put into words.

Manchester By the Sea uses one man and his struggle to speak to the melancholy pervading the lives of millions. The language of the film is pain, so even if the specifics don’t speak to your experience the rollercoaster of emotions, the undulating waves of uncertainty and despair surely will. And yet, for all the sadness in which it trades, Lonergan’s magnum opus finds room for genuinely affecting humor. Hedges often supplies welcomed doses of sarcasm to offset Affleck’s perpetually sullen demeanor. And it is surely welcomed, for if it weren’t for the laughs perhaps it all would have been too much. The best films know when enough is enough.

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5-0Recommendation: Powerfully performed and confidently directed, Manchester By the Sea may on the surface seem like a certain kind of crowd-pleaser — perhaps more the critic-circle variety — but I’d like to think the film’s technical merits and the minutiae of the performances are what has drawn a 97% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The story’s ability to make you empathize is worth recommending to anyone who appreciates a good story about “normal people.” This is a potent, vital film about the human experience and a testament to the indiscriminate yet seemingly random cruelties that life presents. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it.” 

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

Moonlight

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Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

There’s a moment late in Barry Jenkins’ new film featuring a blown-out Naomie Harris desperate for a cigarette, in the way a recovering crack-addict is desperate for a cigarette. Her violently trembling hands fail her, prompting the assistance of her son, for whom she has spent a lifetime erecting an emotional and psychological prison due to her abusive, drug-induced behavior. He lights the tip, mom takes the first blissful drag. The moment seems pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things but this I promise you: I will never forget this scene. Never.

Quite frankly, it’s one of many such scenes buried in Moonlight, a by turns brutal and beautiful drama inspired by a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I will never forget that title.

Nor will I ever forget what it has inspired. This is the story of Chiron, by all accounts a normal kid born into some less-than-ideal circumstances in the rough suburbs of Miami. I couldn’t help but weep for him, even when he ultimately becomes something that probably doesn’t want or need my pity. As he endures psychological cruelty at the hands of his mother Paula (Harris, in one of the year’s most stunning supporting turns), and physical torment from his peers who interpret his quiet demeanor as weakness, he also finds himself grappling with his own identity vis-à-vis his sexuality.

The narrative is presented in an inventive three-act structure that details significant events in his life. Chiron is portrayed by different actors in each segment, ranging in age from 8-ish to twenty-something. Each chapter is given a different label (you should bookmark that term) that corresponds to the way the character is referred to in these eras. Nicknames like ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ not only function as reference points in terms of where we are in the narrative but such descriptors reinforce Jenkins’ theory that people are far too complex to be summed up by a simple word or name. These segments also bear their own unique cinematic style, most notably in the way color plays a role in advancing the film’s themes. Blue accents subtly shift while the camera remains fixated squarely upon the flesh and blood of its subject.

Epic saga has the feel of Richard Linklater’s 12-year experimental project Boyhood but whereas that film relied on the literal, actual growth of its main character, Jenkins hires actors who ingeniously play out different phases of life all the while working toward building a congruous portrait of a gay African-American male. Throughout the journey we are challenged to redefine the labels we have, in some way or another, established for ourselves and for others. Moonlight implores us to embrace not only all that makes a person a person, but that which makes a man a man.

While each actor is absolutely committed to the same cause, all three bring a different side of the character to the forefront. From young Chiron’s hesitation to engage with others — most notably a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) — as demonstrated by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert (who plays Chiron in the first segment, ‘Little’), to the seething anger that has accumulated in the teen form (Ashton Sanders), to the post-juvie gangster Chiron “becomes” (now played by Trevante Rhodes) we are afforded a unique perspective on multiple cause-and-effect relationships, be they of parental or environmental influence. The trio of performances complement the moody tableau in such a way that the entire experience manifests as visual poetry.

But unlike poetry, much of the film’s significance is derived from what is literal. Jenkins’ screenplay is more often than not deceptively simple. The genius lies in how he rarely, if ever, resorts to techniques that provide instant gratification. There are no big showy moments that tell us how we should feel. We just feel. More perceptive viewers will be able to sense where all of this is heading before the first chapter even concludes, but it won’t be long before others come to understand that, as is often the case in reality, this person has been conditioned to become something he deep down inside really is not. Rhodes is perhaps the most notable performer not named Naomie Harris, as he is charged with presenting the cumulative effect these external influences have had on his life, and thus the most complex version of the character. Much of Rhodes’ performance is informed by façade — in this case that of a thug.

Beyond well-balanced performances and the sublime yet subtly artistic manner in which the story is presented, Moonlight strikes a tone that is remarkably compassionate. Were it not for the abuse he endures, this would be something of a romantic affair. Perhaps it still is, in some heartbreaking way. Large chunks of the film play out in almost complete silence, the absence of speech substituted by a cerebral score that often tells us more about what’s going on inside Chiron’s head than anything he says or does.

Other factors contribute to Jenkins’ unique vision — a leisurely but consistent pace, motifs like visits to the beach and Juan’s drug-dealing, the running commentary on the relationship between socioeconomics and race, homosexuality as a prominent theme — but the one thing I’ll always return to is the mother-son dynamic. ‘Little’ deftly sums it up as he begins to open up to Juan: “I hate her.” ‘Parent’ is not a label that currently applies to this reviewer, but the sentiment still nearly broke me. But more than anything it moved me — not so much as a lover of cinema, but rather as a human being. What a movie.

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5-0Recommendation: Heartbreaking drama will doubtless appeal to lovers of cinema as well as those searching for something that’s “a little different.” If your experience with Naomie Harris has been limited to her Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, wow. Have you got a surprise in store for you. Breathtaking work from the Londoner. Breathtaking work from a director I had never heard of before this. The wait was well worth it. It would have been worth the three-hour round-trip drive I almost embarked on in a desperate attempt to see the picture weeks ago. Then my local AMC picked it up. Thank goodness it did. (And guess what else it just got? Loving! Yay!) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re the only man who ever touched me.”

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

Life (2015)

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Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Luke Davies

Directed by: Anton Corbijn

The spotlight shines once more upon Hollywood icon and heartthrob James Dean in the creatively titled 2015 biopic Life. Okay, so there actually is some nuance to the label. You can take it at face value but the film is more concerned with the relationship the actor had with a photographer working to produce a photo essay for Life Magazine.

It isn’t hard to see how this picture has fallen into obscurity. This is far from a flashy biopic. It’s not even purely about James Dean. Life enjoyed an extremely limited theatrical run concurrently with a straight-to-VOD release last December. Now it sits in the recesses of Netflix’s ever-deepening Lost-and-Found bin, gathering cyber dust. My finding was quite arbitrary and perhaps that is why I still feel a little underwhelmed by what it was that I had found. It almost makes me feel like I have a duty to caution those who are willfully seeking it out. Good chance this isn’t the movie you’re thinking, perhaps hoping, it’s going to be.

Anton Corbijn (The American; A Most Wanted Man) has crafted a deliberately understated account of how a genuine bond was formed between two very different individuals — one a farm boy from Indiana and the other a city slicker. Dane DeHaan, a young actor on the rise, portrays the icon while Robert Pattinson becomes Dennis Stock, a photographer for the New York-based Magnum agency who would go on to provide Life Magazine with some of the publication’s most iconic images. The year is 1955. Dean has just portrayed Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and is set to take on arguably his most noteworthy role as the rebel himself, Jim Stark, later that year. The events of the film are slotted in between these two seminal productions, following the two as they travel together from Los Angeles to New York and finally to Dean’s sleepy hometown of Fairmount, Indiana.

Corbijn’s treatment manifests as a moody, introspective examination of careers in transition, and appropriately it features a pair of performances that are more charmingly awkward than awards-baiting. DeHaan in particular enjoys mumbling his lines, an approach that won’t sit well with those who viewed Dean as a more assertive Bad Boy. Nonetheless, he is good at drawing out the pain that lived inside the young star as he grappled with the irrevocable nature of fame. DeHaan treads a fine line between being someone with an ego perhaps too inflated, suggested by his stand-offish relationship with studio execs like Jack Warner (a gleefully nasty Ben Kingsley), and someone suffering a crisis of conscience. (Interestingly, Corbijn opts not to make any sort of comment on Dean’s supposed “sexual experimentation,” likely in an effort to avoid politicizing his film.)

For much of the film Dean doesn’t come across as a rebel so much as he does a diva, but there’s a brilliant scene set at the Fairmount High School prom where we realize Dean’s discomfort in the spotlight is genuine; even in this unthreatening environment he seems totally different than his on-screen persona. Perhaps because he is directly confronted with that which he misses most: a life of simplicity and innocence. In the good old days he had no Jack Warners to worry about breathing down his neck, watching his every move. He had nothing to really worry about other than tending to the cattle, banging his bongos in solitude and absorbing the work of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. Now he must contend with shutterbugs like Stock who can never put down the camera (and thank goodness he didn’t), Red Carpet obligations and gossip columns debating which celebrity he’s bedding on which night.

Life may not dig as deep as it could have and I can almost — almost — empathize with purists who are put off by the casting but there’s no denying that the film’s heart is in the right place. This is a tribute to a Hollywood enigma who died far too young (24 at the time of the car accident). Corbijn’s exploration of an unlikely friendship is both earnest and respectful. Intimate. An air of melancholy pervades without Corbijn ever having to resort to an E! True Hollywood Story kind of ending.

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Recommendation: Meditative film captures the iconic James Dean in his off-screen state. Life can feel a bit underwhelming in spots and there are some moments where the acting doesn’t fully convince but the film is very watchable. Another good one to turn to if you are a fan of either actor. Perhaps if you are a James Dean fan you might look elsewhere for a more definitive account. (What’s really interesting to me is how DeHaan turned the role down five times, feeling intimidated by the prospect. His wife eventually convinced him to take the part.) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You think you’re giving me something that’s not already comin’ my way? I lose myself in my roles! I don’t wanna lose myself in all this other stuff. And you are this other stuff.”

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

Allied

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Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Steven Knight

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Brad Pitt finds a new ally in Marion Cotillard in his post-Angelina Jolie world. Sad face.

Actually, those were just rumors. And this isn’t a gossip column.

On the other hand, the two are pretty convincing playing a pair of lovestruck assassins whose loyalty to one another constantly competes with their loyalty to their own countries. Robert Zemeckis’ homage to classic wartime romantic epics is undeniably better because of the effortless charm of his leads, though Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh they are not. Not that that’s exactly a fair comparison. Allied isn’t setting out to reinvent the wheel; it rather feels more like a new tire with fresh tread. Perhaps it is better to consider the film more in the context of how it measures up to the classics found in Zemeckis’ back catalog as opposed to where it lies within the genre.

The film opens with SOE operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting into the sand dunes of French Morocco. It’s 1942 and he’s on a mission to take out a Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. He’s to work with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who narrowly escaped France after her resistance group became compromised. On the assignment they pose as a married couple and are successful in eliminating their target and escaping with their lives.

What begins as merely a cover story develops into the genuine article, and soon Max and Marianne are married and settling down to start a family in London. In a particularly memorable scene they welcome their daughter Anna amidst the chaos of another aerial raid accompanying the German blitzkrieg that devastated the East End. Even under normal circumstances the birthing of a child is an event that tends to really bring a couple together, so I can only imagine going through that experience literally on the streets while debris and gunfire are raining down around you would do wonders for your ability to commit to your significant other.

The intensifying pressures of the war make Max’s job a living hell when he is told by an officer that outranks both himself and his direct superior Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) that his wife is a suspected double agent who is actually working for the Germans. He is ordered to trick Marianne into playing into a trap and once it’s proven she is indeed a German spy he must execute her himself or face being hanged for high treason. Behold, the great sacrifices that must be made in love and war. Or in this case, love during war.

Old-fashioned romance is shaped by two terrific performances from Pitt and Cotillard who once again remind us why they are among the industry’s elites. The heartache accompanying Max’s dilemma is compounded when you take into account how good their characters are at what they do. The performances within the performances are compelling. Steven Knight provides the screenplay, tapping into the psychological aspect of a most unusual and highly dangerous profession. The first third of the film makes a point of fixating upon that idea, of how trust is so hard to come by when you’re a professional spy.

That same third is a good barometer for how the rest of the film will play out. If you’re expecting bombastic, flashy displays of wartime violence you may need to look elsewhere, although the aforementioned blitzkrieg provides some pulse-pounding moments. Knight’s story ditches numbing CGI in favor of a more human and more intimate perspective. It’s an approach that admittedly contributes to a slower paced narrative but one that never succumbs to being boring. This is a film that’s more about the way two people look at each other rather than the way entire nations fight each other. On those grounds alone Allied feels like a throwback to war films like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, and where the former lacks the latter films’ sense of grandeur it more than makes up for it in nuance.

Ultimately Allied finds its director working comfortably within his wheelhouse while offering  a darker, more subtle story that’s well worth investing time into.

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Recommendation: The trifecta of a steadily absorbing narrative, plush cinematic texture that contributes mightily to the mise en scène, and excellent performances from two seasoned pros makes this an easy recommendation. Especially if you are partial to Robert Zemeckis’ compassionate voice. Every one of his films have been tinged with a romantic element but whereas The Walk, his penultimate release, suffered from an over-reliance on it (to the point of schmaltz, in this reviewer’s opinion) his 2016 effort uses it to its advantage, creating an ultimately enjoyable and often surprising wartime drama that will reward repeat viewings.

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Hey, what happened to my kiss?” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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