Zero Dark Thirty 2012 drama, action, adventure
I recently re-watched this nearly ten year old film, and was inspired to pen a review and mention two excellent non-fiction books which I found to be very relevant to the subject at hand. The hunt for Osama bin Laden (OBL) began in Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 terror attacks. Even before the attack OBL was on the American radar as a well-known, violent Islamic extremist. Just a few weeks after 9/11, American CIA Jawbreaker Teams, with strong air support and our Afghan allies, had OBL and his al-Qaeda terrorists on the run in their mountain stronghold. Bin Laden and his surviving Jihad fighters bolted for one of the rugged mountain passes on the Pakistan border. The Jawbreaker team called for an American Marine blocking force to capture bin Laden (reference Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, Berntsen, Gary- CIA Field Commander). In one of the stupidest decisions in modern American history, George W. Bush handed off the blocking force assignment to the Pakistan army. His reason – “he was worried about casualties”. OBL and his men slipped past the Pakis and went into hiding in the outlaw infested Pakistani tribal region. Fast forward ten+ years to Zero Dark Thirty (ZD 30).
It is helpful to remember at all times watching ZD 30 that what we are seeing on the screen is a Pentagon/CIA approved, carefully vetted movie. With a Pentagon script approval, comes important access to the big toys – helicopter gunships, fighter jets and combat vehicles (reference National Security Cinema, Alford, Matthew). The U.S. military and CIA analysts are presented as dedicated patriots and selfless heroes. The camera lingers lovingly at Maya (Jessica Chastain), an unsung CIA agent at the mission’s center, as she strikes one of several angelic poses. She is, of course, an avenging angel in red, white and blue.
Few details on the hunt and destroy operation for Osama bin Laden were made public, so the secrecy and mystery of the operation fueled interest in the film. Almost immediately ZD 30 kicked up a big political shit-storm. The liberals puked and moaned about the movie “justifying torture”; while the equally clueless Republicans bitched about the movie being a campaign ad for Obama’s re-election.
ZD 30 is neither a strict dramatization of the facts nor a Rah-Rah feel-good revenge story; instead, it’s a gripping fusion of a complex investigative drama that spawns into an action-thriller showing the day of reckoning for the world’s most wanted terrorist. Zero Dark Thirty lulls during the droning conference-room meeting. But it’s operating at its peak when Jessica Chastain’s Maya cracks the secret of bin Laden’s hideout and argues with her supervisors for the approval to attack. The entire nighttime raid on bin Laden’s compound is a remarkably focused piece of filmmaking. Sure we know the outcome, but seeing it happen on the big screen was astonishing. This is an intelligent, well-constructed film for grown-ups. But make no mistake; as the supreme CIA Tribute nothing beats ZD30.
No Escape 2015 drama, action, thriller
No Escape was one of the best movies of 2015 and inspired the stupidest PC backlash. Very few action-thrillers are as exciting and intense as this film. The film portrays a chilling examination of what happens to strangers in a strange land when the rule of law is turned upside down and chaos ensures.
The movie opens in an unnamed Asian nation (we are later given enough hints to place the story in Cambodia, much to their exasperation.) The leader, wearing a dressy military uniform, is meeting with a Western businessman. We see the scene from the point of view of the ruler’s bodyguard—he tastes the tea his boss is served, presumably checking for poison, and walks the businessman to his car after the meeting ends. But that turns out to be a fatal mistake: When the sovereign is left alone, rebels strike. Locked out of the house, the bodyguard sprints to another entrance as we hear sounds of gunfire; by the time he arrives on the scene, the leader is dead.
The movie quickly shifts to the Dwyer family aboard a wide body passenger jet - a caption informs the audience that the timeline has shifted 17 hours before the start of the violent coup. And into this ticking bomb flies the Dwyer family – Jack (Owen Wilson) and wife Annie (Bell Lake) and two cute little girls – I would guess Breeze age four and sister Lucy age eight years old. Breeze still carries around her favorite stuffed animal. The scene of the family in the airplane does a good job of introducing the Dwyers and creating a very believable family unit. The script is tight; informing us in short order that Jack Dwyer is an engineer who has taken a family expat assignment with a multinational corporation to construct a modern water plant in the Asian nation. Annie and Breeze briefly interact with a nearby passenger named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a Brit with a friendly, wry sense of humor that charms little Breeze.
We shift to the hectic, crowded airport with the Dwyers pushing a heavily loaded luggage cart with two little girls in tow. In short order Jack senses that things are off; his international cell phone does not work and a driver assigned to pick them up at the airport is a no-show. Jack and Annie are befuddled, and then Hammond, nonchalant and confident, sweeps in to the rescue. “I have been here fifteen times, and I warn you about these guys yelling at you for a taxi.” Hammond offers the family a lift to their hotel in his ride – The Kenny Rogers bus. The bus and the colorful driver provide a delightful comic relief.
The Dwyers settle in at the hotel only to find the TV and telephone do not work. Anne yells at Jack, “This is not a third world country. It is the fourth world.” Jack, in his naturally awkward manner, skulks off to the lobby to get some help. The discussion with desk clerk is fruitless, so Jack decides to go to the bar for a beer, and there is Hammond again – up on the Karaoke stage belting out a song. He and Jack chat after the performance and he gives Jack, and the audience, a strong impression that he is a sex tourist. He tells Jack he is off to a strip club but first will slip into his sweat pants to let them know, “he means business.”
After a restless, uncomfortably night, Jack awakes early and quietly slips out of the room to fetch a newspaper. The front desk clerk informs Jack that the papers were not delivered, so he hikes over to the nearby market square to find a news stand. Tall, blonde, dressed in khaki pants and blue collared shirt, Jack is the only foreigner around and sticks out like sore thumb in the street market. No big deal until everything suddenly changes for the worst. Much, much worse. Jack notices that the shops are closing down, and quickly rolling shut their metal doors. He is shocked to discover that he’s literally stuck in the middle of a street demonstration with riot cops on one side and rock-throwing revolutionaries on the other. Jack watches in horror as a cop shoots and kills one of the rebels, and all hell breaks loose.
From then on, Jack is on the run for his life and his family’s safety. Chased by a mob, Jack rushes back to the hotel to protect his family, and meets Hammond on the stairway. This time we see the true Hammond; he is in full warrior mode and armed with a semi-auto pistol, “Go to the roof,” he shouts to Jack. In order to stay alive, the Dwyers must stay ten steps ahead of the brutal mob. Aiding in their quest is Hammond who serves as a guardian angel showing up just in the nick of time when the family needs to be rescued.
It is a white genocide in full brutal force on the screen – the whites are chased down and bludgeoned to death with clubs. The lucky ones get a quick bullet in the brain. We see unarmed civilians on their knees lined up in the street in order to be run over by a truck, and violent rebels hacking tourists apart with machetes. In one very nasty scene, the rebels attempt to rape Annie in front of Jack and their two children.
Director John Erick Dowdle has crafted a claustrophobically tense thriller. There’s a real sense of doom on all sides, an idea that safety is impossible. No Escape is not for the weak—but it’s perfect for anyone interested in taking a terrifying journey into the heart of human darkness from the safety of your cozy living room.
There was a confused PC backlash against No Escape claiming that the film is racist against Orientals. Is the criticism justified? No, not at all if you consider the history of Cambodia. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Khmer Republic and took over Cambodia. The KR Party was a nationalistic, racist, Marxist and very violent. Ben Kiernan, Director of Genocide Studies at Yale University, estimated nearly two million Cambodians and foreigners died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during Pol Pot’s purification purge. That was about 25% of Cambodian population in 1975. So don’t tell me the Cambodians are all non-violent pacifists. Fill your boots and go visit some of the hundreds of mass grave sites in Cambodia where mountains of human skulls have been excavated. The amount of evidence is overwhelming. This is not to say that present day Cambodia is an unsafe place to visit, but until they come up with something more interesting than displays of human skulls – I’ll pass.
Mandy 2018 action, horror
In the opening scenes we, the audience, are introduced to a nice, normal couple – Red Miller and Mandy Bloom. The two live happily together in a modest cabin on a forested acreage. It is set in the American northwest – in lumber country. Red is a lumberjack and Mandy is a writer. They both are pretty laid back and calm. It is rare for a horror film to spend about 20 – 30 minutes of its run time that consists of an extended prologue exploring Red and Mandy’s relationship before the latter's death. We know it is a set-up and a journey to hell waits in the wings. The film's score creates a sense of moody foreboding. Throughout the film's first half, the music is mostly relaxing in tone, later a synthesizer line pulses stronger and stronger, spiking and jarring when we are introduced to the presence of evil – an unmarked panel van traveling down a gravel back road. At this point the movie changes gears and the trouble starts. The passengers of the van are the Children of the New Dawn, a band of religious fanatics with a “charismatic” Charles Manson type leader. The cult is also deep into psycho-active drugs of astonishing potency.
In a 2018 UK Guardian interview, Nicolas Cage described his performance's inspiration for Red Miller: only just before shooting on the film started, his 14 year marriage to Alice Kim Cage came to 'a sudden end', which was "A shocker for me... I didn't see it coming, and those feelings had to go somewhere, so they went into my performance." So Cage hired a personal “screaming coach” named David Sellers (uncredited) to capture the right vibe. There's a scene in the movie during the violent death of his lover, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), at the hands of Children of the New Dawn. Red Miller is bloodied and chained up. Cage has a look on his face of utter amazement and dread and horror as the camera hangs back at first them closes in tighter and tighter as Red begins screaming and screaming; we are witness to a real life, on-screen total catharsis.
Of course, the cult leader spares Red, or else there is no movie. Red goes on the warpath and we have a straightforward revenge plot told in a series of roughly connected, often trippy, images or hallucinations. Many of the scenes are washed out with a red tint when they aren't streaked in bright, blinking greens and whites that unfold in a sort of a waking nightmare fashion. The logic (if that’s the correct word) is sketchy, impressionistic and steeped in mysticism that makes trying to "solve" it feel like missing the point. Red’s weapons of choice are a crossbow and a hand-made battle axe that seem to have mystical powers of their own. Throughout the narrative thread of Red’s bloody revenge quest, the director/writer Panos Cosmatos, crafts one after another of his hypnotic scenes that work as pure filmmaking, while tapping an emotional core you feel rather than understand. This movie is not for everyone, but here at House Clark, Mandy is the WTF did I just see movie of 2018, and maybe for the entire 2010 decade.
Kill List 2011 crime, horror
This is a difficult film to review (without giving too much away). The movie is a mix of crime and horror genres, with a dash of dark, British humor. The two main characters, Jay and Gal, are professional hitmen and some of their conversations are quite funny. Jay’s wife, Shel, pressures Jay to get back to work even though she knows he kills people for Lots of cash.
The first act of the film might give you the impression it's a garden variety family melodrama with a troubled, unemployed father. It isn't.
The second third of the film might give you the impression that it's your typical hitman-action-crime drama. It isn't.
Then comes the final third. None of the incredible third act has been foretold in earlier scenes, and then there's a shocking finale that’s only slightly hinted at (a ten second scene where Fiona goes into Jay and Shel’s bathroom and scratches a strange symbol on the back of the mirror). It will make you question everything you've seen up to that point. It's out there. Waaaay out there. I haven't seen an ending like that before, and it raises moral questions that the audience has to deal with, one way or another. It’s best not to overthink it, and I probably will not watch it again.
The film does a terrific job of building a mood and layering suspense aided by an immensely talented cast who are believable and hit the right notes. The violence is intrinsic to the film and to its protagonist, but that doesn't make it any easier to watch. In one scene, Jay beats a man with a hammer like he was a piñata. Not a film for the squeamish. Ben Wheatley (Director) does not turn the camera away from violence. There are a couple of quite graphic scenes that might have you wincing. It is Grim and intense.
Before I wrap this up, it should be said that this is an indie British film, and some of the characters have the mumbling, thick lower estuary accent that is difficult, for most Americans, to understand. Take a moment to switch on the subtitles then sit back, relax and let the mayhem begin.
Prevenge 2016 dark, comedy, crime
This revenge flick has an unlikely Avenging Angel; Ruth (Alice Lowe) is a widow and very pregnant, I’m guessing 7 months. She has a bun in the oven and a knife in her hand bag along with a bizarre notebook. And if your name is in her notebook, she will pay you a visit and slay you with her trusty 9 inch kitchen knife. Why? It takes about half of the movie runtime to catch a few hints. [The following is not really a spoiler – it helps the viewer understand the movie]. The names in Ruth’s kill list are the people who Ruth feels were either instrumental or tangential to the death of her husband in a mountain climbing accident. She also carries on a running conversation with her unborn baby. The nature of the mommy- baby discussions is better left unsaid so as not to spoil this fine dark comedy.
The homicides are simple but bloody affairs and each has a hilarious set up. In classic British dark comedy fashion, the cops fail miserably and don’t have a clue about identity of the killer. Ruth is an outwardly ordinary woman; the sort people hardly notice which makes her easier to believe. It is important that the film treats Ruth as a sympathetic character. The success of the movie depends on it. Most of her victims are rather obnoxious and odd, and there are scenes where she shows a caring side... most amusingly when she cares for a man's mistreated mother shortly after dispatching him.
The making of this low budget, pregnant slasher film is remarkable. Alice Lowe, finding herself pregnant, used her condition to inspire this blackest of black scripts. She then wrote, produced, cast and filmed (in 11 days) the whole affair before her baby arrived. Amazing!
Sightseers 2012 comedy-romance, crime
This film is very much a team effort: the two stars, Alice Lowe (Tina) and Steve Oram (Chris), also co-wrote the script, based on two characters they developed while working in Stand-up comedy clubs. The highlight, and 90% of the film, is when Chris and Tina, his new girlfriend, embark on an extended caravanning (trailer camping per Americans) holiday. The road-trip gives Tina the chance to liberate herself, just like Chris, who dreams of becoming a full-time writer. Chris tells Tina that she is his muse and the trip is intended to spark his creative writing efforts. At first they have a budding, rather awkward and “normal” romance that soon warms up into a honeymoon-type trip. They are shagging like newlyweds before reaching the first campground. So off they go to visit a tram museum, the Keswick pencil factory, historical relics and campgrounds. It is a very British journey. The script is deadpan yet very witty: both Tina and Chris get some funny one-liners.
The traveling couple has an unlucky knack for encountering an annoying, rude person almost every place they visit. Who hasn’t met some obnoxious lout on vacation? Sure we’d love to punch him in the nose with brass knuckles, but we don’t. It’s ok to think it, but Chris is not the type to let it go. He gets angry and commits a string of homicides everywhere they go. Is it funny? Yes. Did I laugh? Yes. By the time Tina gets in on the killing, I was roaring. Oh, I almost forgot – the movie has a cute dog along for the trip. So how does the trip end? Sorry mate, No spoilers. Find it and watch it, and remember it’s only a movie; not a lesson in morals.
The film is beautifully shot. The Director, Ben Wheatley, takes full advantage of the breathtaking backdrop of the vibrant green, rolling hills of Yorkshire and the Lake District. A weird British film like this one is destined to become a cult classic.
Hollywoodland 2006 drama mystery
I am easily drawn to movies that are set in the 1950’s because I remember those early days of my childhood very clearly. Back in the 50’s, Clark Kent was a household name, and everyone knew the Superman intro by heart, “Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s Superman”. I never knew that the original Superman actor, George Reeves, committed suicide (according to official reports by LAPD), until I came across this movie. The protagonist in the movie is a struggling private detective, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) who investigates the death of Reeves as a “whodunit” at the urging of Reeves’ mother, who rejects suicide as cause of death of her son. Simo is smart enough to know he is soon in way over his head with the investigation. He plugs along trying to build a homicide case.
Pros - This is a beautifully produced film with some Oscar worthy performances, particularly from the lead actors; Diane Lane, and Ben Affleck. Affleck's resemblance to Reeves in some scenes is astonishing - particularly as Clark Kent! Affleck even had Reeves' vocal rhythm. Ben certainly does his best dramatic acting since his glory days in 1997, and this performance probably saved him from “winning” Razzie’s worst actor of 2000’s decade (Eddie Murphy “won” with his unbelievable string of turkeys.) As Toni Mannix, Diane Lane is mesmerizing, sexy, strong, and possessive of George, first as a gorgeous vamp and then as the flinty and scorned older woman. Ten years George's senior, Toni understands that she's not getting any younger and quips to George, "I have another seven good years, then my ass drops like a duffel bag."
Bob Hoskins is great as the menacing, tough guy Eddie Mannix, an MGM studio executive. Best Eddie scene – the awkward double date with Eddie and his Japanese mail order mistress, and his wife, Toni, on a date with Reeves. They are at a fancy restaurant where Toni pops a request for Eddie to buy a small Hollywood bungalow. Eddie knows that she wants to set up her new Hollywood pretty boy in the new house. Eddie shrugs and says, “Ok, real estate is always a good investment.” When Reeves tries to engage the Japanese girl in conversation, Eddie screams at Reeves, “Don’t talk to her. She doesn’t speak English!” LOL for true love.
Like the dinner date scene, the best scenes in the film are told in flashback of George Reeve’s life in Hollywood. The scenes filming "The Adventures of Superman" are fantastic, and I for one wanted to see more. "Hollywoodland" captures the reality of making a television show back then and evokes the atmosphere of Hollywood in the '50s beautifully.
Cons - Unfortunately the film is flawed; there was too much diversion into Louis Simo’s personal problems that have little to nothing to do with investigating the George Reeves suicide-or-murder mystery. Simo’s troubles were all very commonplace and boring. Who cares, anyway?
I recently rewatched this forgotten movie with my finger poised on the fast-forward button. I skimmed thru scenes with Simo’s ex-wife and kid. I never missed a single item as related to storyline and plot, and made Reeves/Affleck more the center of the story, so I got a better understanding of Reeves’s character and enjoyed my “self-edited” version much better than the original (poorly edited) studio version.
Enough Said 2013 romance, comedy
James Gandolfini, in one of his last film roles, co-stars with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in this low budget, indie film written and directed by Nicole Holofcener. This is by far Holofcener’s best work to date. The supporting cast is solid with Catherine Keener (a usual player in Holofcener's movies), Toni Collette and Ben Falcone. I was hooked when I saw the photo on the DVD jacket – Tony Soprano dating goofy Elaine from Seinfeld. I had to give it a try, so I popped the library rental into the player and watched with my wife, who is a big rom-com fan.
This is one of Gandolfini's best and most likable movie performances and Louis-Dreyfus has never been better. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a divorced, massage therapist who is not looking forward to her daughter going away to college. Eva meets a lot people in her business and gets invited to a party where she meets Albert (Gandolfini). Albert is a divorced father who is also soon to be an empty nester. Eva and Albert hit it off and begin dating. Later Eva becomes friends with Marianne, who happens to be Albert’s ex-wife. Marianne has no idea that Eva is dating Albert, and she is a motor mouth with plenty of negative stories about Albert. Sometimes it is really a small world, so the second part of the movie is about Eva’s dilemma of keeping her mouth shut and dealing with too much information on Albert.
The film is amusing but not in a screwball, or slapstick way. It has a lot to say about second chance relationships, as well as family dynamics. Eva and Albert's characters drive the drama but it's the subtleties of the interactions between the two that makes it tangible & real and makes the whole film work. Albert lacks a polished veneer, but his honesty is refreshing and ultimately Eva sees him as a very caring and charming man. It's Louis-Dreyfus that really surprised me though. On 'Seinfeld' she was cast, like so many of the characters of that show, as a whiny, selfish, neurotic NYC Jew. I liked her better playing a normal, mature adult and considerate mother, and she helped make the movie true to life. Enough said.
Horror of Dracula 1958 horror drama
When looking for a top-shelf, vintage British horror film, certain elements must be considered. Is it from either Hammer or Amicus Studios? Yes, it’s from the former. Does it star either Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee? In fact, it stars both of those fine actors. Does it feature Michael Gough in a supporting role? It sure does! Was it directed by Terence Fisher or Freddie Francis? Indeed, this is a Terence Fisher classic. At this point, the film’s plot, which revolves around vampire hunters crossing swords with Count Dracula, is beside the point: it’s already a must-see.
Christopher Lee's towering performance turns the Count into a seductive monster, who sinks his fangs into the porcelain necks of his pretty co-stars as their bosoms pant with excited abandon. Director Terence Fisher definitely knew what his audience wanted, and mixes sex appeal with bursts of violence (crucifixes burnt into foreheads, wooden stakes plunged into vampire hearts). Meanwhile, lush cinematography transcends the production sets of Dracula’s castle and misty graveyards to Gothic splendor. Watch this film in splendid color on the 2010 Warner Bros DVD enhanced for modern widescreen TV. The bright red blood dripping from Dracula's white fangs and eyes flashing crimson with bloodshot menace are sure to please old school British horror movie fans.
Season of the Witch 2011 drama horror historical
I'm fascinated by movies and stories with Book of Job themes in which the protagonist(s) struggles to believe in a loving God despite ample evidence to the contrary. These dark tales are timeless and cut to the heart of human craving for meaning and hope in the midst of despair, in this case, the dreaded Black Plague of 14th century Medieval Europe. The film fares better than most flicks in the horror genre because of good performances from the three lead actors; Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman are two bad-ass knights (Beymen and Felson) and Claire Foy plays “The Girl” accused of being a witch and causing the Black Plague.
In a key scene in the movie, our two knights are arrested and brought before the Cardinal (Christopher Lee) who has the plague and is on his death bed. The scene has a sense of realism – the four or five doctors attending the Cardinal are all wearing plague masks. The primitive masks had large beaks which were stuffed with dried flowers and herbs to block the bad smells of the open plague sores. The Cardinal decrees that for the knights to earn their freedom, they must escort a caged wagon to the Abbey of Severac. The girl in the cage has been accused of witchcraft and will be tried by the Monks at Severac using the sacred Book of Rituals. A priest, Debelzaq, is put in the charge of the expedition.
The journey begins with a guide, 4 guards (including Bayman and Perlman) and the priest driving the wagon. The landscape is rugged mountains with narrow trails – I had the feeling the setting was high in the French Alps. As you would expect, the journey has plenty of action to keep the tension level and the viewer's interest high from start to finish. What I really liked about the film wasn't so much the swordplay, but that things are not as they seem: Initially we think that the priest is a misogynist who enjoys killing women, but this proves to be not the case at all. Also the girl is quite extraordinary – beside being physically very strong, she could skillfully transition herself into being a frightened innocent girl one moment to being very manipulative and menacing the next. Claire delivers an amazing performance in her first feature film debut. We are buffeted with conflicting information regarding the girl and the priest all the way to Severac. What is the real truth here? Eventually we find out, but not before the SHTF and swords are drawn in a fight to the finish. No spoilers.
Written by Ben Clark. Copyright 2016-2021. All rights reserved.