Few films of action and revenge come with a genuine sense of terror and pathos. Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here has enough faith in the audience to piece together its broken hero, his traumatic history and a commentary on his nature of violence with hardly a word. In the tired and formulaic format of action-oriented revenge and rescue films, Ramsay has found something more artful and meaningful past the usual gun-toting. Here is a film that takes its time with its gripping violence, where every kill carries more weight than a rush of adrenaline. Rarely have I received such chills with the tale of a man killing people to save a little girl.
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“But did you know those actors were the real people from the true events?” Yes, I’ve heard it everywhere. From the TV interviews to the word-of-mouth buzz, to even the usually blank comment cards at the press screening. It’s an admirable gimmick from Clint Eastwood and a surefire way to garner easy praises of patriotism for a film that holds real heroes up on the screen. It may even be an ironclad way to avoid criticism, making a case that those who don’t like the film don’t like the heroes. The truth is I do like the real-life trio brought together for this film that stopped a terrorist on a train. I like them so much I didn’t want to see them flounder on screen with a film that has little to say about them past being average men that did average things in a surprisingly average movie adaptation.
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In the era of so-called fake news and questioning of journalistic integrity, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is both eerie and timely. It’s a mostly reactionary piece to be sure that focuses more on the importance of the Washington Post’s contribution to free press and representation. And, yes, it does slam its points home with the power of Thor’s hammer. But in an age when we tend to devalue journalism to such a degree, such an impact feels warranted.
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Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have been hailed for their amazing lyrical work on last year’s musical hit La La Land, a film with a stunningly invigorating soundtrack of jazz and orchestral wonder. They’re touted on the poster of The Greatest Showman as being hired to breathe that same amount of energy and toe-tapping to the tale of showman P.T. Barnum. Much like Barnum, they do a stellar job at hoodwinking audiences into attending this spectacle for the promise of an entertaining musical. And while director Michael Gracey certainly delivers music and sequences of grand design, there’s an aroma of a machine to its assembly as opposed to the heartfelt biopic of amazing feats this production was going for.
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When Gary Oldman first appears on screen as Winston Churchill, I couldn’t believe it was him. He embodies the historical figure with the right amount of girth, waddling and cantankerous mutterings of a man with the noisy gears constantly grinding in his head. It is such a flawless performance that director Joe Wright lets his camera get in close to notice every detail; the quivering of his lips as he prepares to deliver a speech, the solace he seeks in every cigar, and the look of doubt buried deep within his eyes. Oldman loses himself so deeply in the role that the audience does as well, making for one of his best performances of his career.
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What an astounding recovery for Adam Sandler. His contract with Netflix has led him from making Sandy Wexler, one of 2017’s worst films, to The Meyerowitz Stories, one of the year’s best. I suppose if director Todd McCarthy can go from directing the worst movie of 2015 (the Adam Sandler starring The Cobbler) to the Academy Award winner of 2015 (Spotlight) anything is possible. Yes, Virginia, there is a brilliant Adam Sandler starring movie.
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Let There Be Light is the ultimate and most cartoonish of Christianity wish fulfillment. It’s a wet dream of Midwest Christians that would like to believe every atheist is one near-death experience away from being a believer and that Fox News is the savior of spreading the gospel. You know you’re watching the goofiest of Christsploitation when Sean Hannity swoops in to save the day.
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Kenneth Branagh loves both literature and actors, making him a safe choice to direct the latest theatrical adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic novel. Almost too perfect. Branagh brings much of what we love and have come to expect from the director/actor. He stages Murder on the Orient Express with plenty beautiful cinematography, A-list actors, brilliant staging and subtle performances. He seems so in love with this mystery that he forgets to give it a boost of character, something that all good mysteries need if they don’t want to get lost in the shuffle of countless entries of the genre. Murder on the Orient Express is less like a modern remake of the classic tale and more of a snoozy stage play on its last week.
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Buster’s Mal Heart is three films that struggle to connect towards each other in their nonlinear progression. The first is that of a man trying to escape the daily grind and live off the grid with his family. The second is that of the same man living off the grid, but still mooching off the vacations homes of the woods he roams. The third is the same man once again so off the grid on the ocean his mind has left the human world. The central character is as much searching for meaning in his dark adventures as I was, hoping that all this madness and darkness would build to something more than just an esoteric afterthought.
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Movies such as The Promise can make history come alive in a way that no other medium can. I can still recall being bored out of my mind by junior high school history class until we were allowed to watch Glory and the American Civil War was now exciting and interesting. In a similar tone, The Promise will shake awake dreary students to how horrific and inhumane the Armenian Genocide of the Ottoman Empire truly was. As a historical piece about the horrors of a massacre, it’s solid film making. The soapy love triangle attached in the foreground, however, prevents the movie from being truly great.
At least the actors are not playing it like a soap opera. Oscar Isaac puts everything he has into the role of Mikael, an Armenian med student who has come to study in Constantinople. He could only afford to go to this school with the dowry of marrying a woman he’s not sure he truly loves. Those suspicions are confirmed when he meets the lovely Ana, an Armenian artist rose in Paris and played by Charlotte Le Bon. They hit it off right away and desperately long for each other, despite Mikael already being betrothed and Ana already married to her overly-emotional husband of a reporter Chris (Christian Bale). Considering that Mikael’s uncle offers to pay off the dowry and Chris is more occupied in the political tensions of the country than Ana, all the cards seem to be falling in place for the happy couple.
But then that pesky Armenian Genocide gets in their way. This is the aspect of the movie where it truly shines and not just because it takes us away from the dreary romance. There are some unforgettable shots where Mikael attempts to unlock a train full of Armenian prisoners and Chris watches helplessly as Turkish soldiers lead Armenians into the desert to be killed. I could feel the heartbreak when Mikael starts losing loved ones to executions and Chris is given the difficult choice of denying the genocide or being slaughtered by the Turkish government. Just when it seems as though the story has hit its stride, however, it continuously cuts away from the more powerful moments. There is a violent assault of Armenians defending themselves as they move up a mountain from pursuing Turkish forces, but the movie will quickly cut away to another scene just as the violence starts to become more brutal. Must the Armenian Genocide by PG-13?
It’s not that a romantic plot couldn’t be weaved into such a catastrophic event in history, but it’s not as strong with how the romance between Mikael and Ana is presented as a clashing element. There’s a very intense scene where the two of them are trying to fend for their lives in the streets of Constantinople, fighting off Turkish soldiers with their fists and cabbages. After finally finding a safe building in town, while people are still being beaten and businesses are still being destroyed, the two laugh about throwing cabbages at Turkish soldiers that wanted to beat them to death. With the levity established, they have passionate and loving sex…while Armenians are still being beaten in the streets just outside their window.
It’s so hard to recommend a movie like The Promise which favors more of its lame romantic triangle than the more interesting historical aspects. If you can overlook the overly dramatic, and sometimes out of place romantic tone for such material, this film can be a raw and sobering experience of how 1.5 million people were wiped off the face of the Earth. But, again, there’s an awful lot of dreary longing, gazing and smooching to look past. Of all the characters, I found myself most interested in Christian Bale’s character as he seems to be the only one more concerned about this atrocity than who is currently sleeping with his wife. His story on its own is far more intriguing than finding out if Mikael will ever confess his true feelings to Ana.