12 Strong

© 2017 HS FILM, LLC

(L-R) NAVID NEGAHBAN as General Dostum and CHRIS HEMSWORTH as Captain Mitch Nelson in Alcon Entertainment’s, Black Label Media’s and Jerry Bruckheimer Films’ war drama 12 STRONG, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Don’t feel guilty. It’s perfectly acceptable to dislike 12 Strong and still salute the courageous efforts of our military personnel overseas.

In fact, the true-life bravery and resilience of the first U.S. Army Special Forces unit on the ground in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks deserves a better big-screen treatment than this intermittently powerful but embellished and clichéd wartime flag-waver.

Specifically, it takes place in late October 2001 and follows the unit’s brash captain, Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), who jumps on the patriotic bandwagon and rounds up his Green Berets for a covert revenge mission targeting al-Qaeda strongholds in northern Afghanistan.

Operating from a remote base in neighboring Uzbekistan, the men reach the mountains amid growing dread since they’re badly outnumbered, save for the promised help of air troops as required. They connect with the warlord Gen. Dostum (Navid Negahban), who knows the terrain and shares their hatred for the enemy, and realize their best transportation is on horseback.

Their collective efforts attempt to uncover terror networks before the impending winter weather, with the hope of eventually returning the entire unit home to their families.

The film is fashioned primarily as a star vehicle for Hemsworth between Thor outings, and while his charisma and charm are appealing, his character’s nonchalant swagger and persistent optimism in the face of mounting danger feels forced.

The screenplay generally lacks character depth and historical context. The film supplies little background for anyone outside of Nelson — heroes or villains — and bookend sequences on the home front feel more manipulative than genuine. The squandered supporting cast includes Michael Shannon, Michael Pena and Trevante Rhodes.

Danish filmmaker Nicolai Fuglsig, an acclaimed commercial director making his feature debut, brings visual flair to the chaotic battle sequences, which generate tension due in part to a gritty, boots-on-the-ground intimacy.

The remarkable true story is worth spotlighting, especially since — as the film points out at the end — the mission was never widely recognized at the time because it remained classified for several years afterward.

While such intentions might be heartfelt, the execution feels like a missed opportunity. Instead of emphasizing what made the Horse Soldiers stand out, the film is content to portray them as assembly-line action heroes whose camaraderie and cunning help them survive the most harrowing of shootouts and explosions. As a result, 12 Strong is considerably weakened.

 

Rated R, 130 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Jan. 19

The Final Year

In this age of aggressive ideological division, praise for this documentary is certain to fall along party lines. Yet open-minded viewers should gain some insight from this behind-the-scenes chronicle of the last 365 days of the Obama administration. Primarily, it focuses on foreign policy and follows the global travels of Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power and high-ranking presidential aide Ben Rhodes. The film wears its appreciation for the 44th president on its proverbial sleeve, although director Greg Barker (We Are the Giant) uses his remarkable access to capture some powerfully candid moments, especially leading up to the apprehensive transition of power. (Not rated, 89 minutes).

 

Forever My Girl

It’s difficult to imagine two people less suited for one another than the lovebirds in this eye-rolling redemption tale about a country music superstar (Alex Roe) who returns after a tragedy to his Louisiana hometown, where he attempts to reconcile with his preacher father (John Benjamin Hickey) and with his high school sweetheart (Jessica Rothe) who he left at the altar eight years earlier. She’s now a florist and single mother to a precocious girl (Abby Ryder Fortson). The screenplay by director Bethany Ashton Wolf lacks subtlety and surprise while indulging in cutesy contrivances at the expense of narrative authenticity. The result feels out of tune. (Rated PG, 104 minutes).

 

Mom and Dad

This amusing combination of slasher flick and suburban satire stars a full-tilt Nicolas Cage as Brent, the father of a teenage daughter (Anne Winters) and a younger son in a community overrun by hysteria, in which parents murder their own children apparently as revenge for their misdeeds. So it isn’t long before Brent and his wife (Selma Blair) reluctantly join the action. The screenplay by director Brian Taylor (Crank) has the courage to follow through on its twisted concept. And there are enough clever touches along the way — such as the soundtrack and the use of household objects as weapons — to compensate for some formulaic execution. (Rated R, 83 minutes).

 

The Road Movie

You might think twice about driving in bad weather, and you’ll definitely think twice about ever driving in Russia, after watching this documentary consisting entirely of footage from Russian dashboard cameras. The compilation includes horrifying crashes and hair-raising close calls, road-rage incidents, animal encounters, and other outbursts of bizarre behavior — all narrated by drivers and passengers at the scene. The alternately hilarious and harrowing result offers a glimpse into life in contemporary working-class Russia, even if it shortchanges any broader context or insight. With most segments only lasting a few seconds, the scattershot film is almost hypnotically compelling for rubberneckers and reality TV buffs everywhere. (Not rated, 70 minutes).

 

Small Town Crime

A strong cast is saddled with a formulaic redemption story in this energetic low-budget crime thriller with a mildly amusing throwback vibe. It follows an ex-cop whose alcoholism has derailed both his career and his personal life. When he finds a body along the side of the road, he launches a vigilante investigation that he hopes will heal his wounds. Hawkes carries the film through its rough patches with a portrayal that’s both edgy and sympathetic, even if the script by sibling directors Eshom and Ian Nelms keeps his character confined within some genre clichés. The cast includes Anthony Anderson, Octavia Spencer and Robert Forster. (Rated R, 91 minutes).

The Commuter

©2018, Studiocanal.

(L-R) Vera Farmiga and Liam Neeson in STUDIOCANAL and Lionsgate’s THE COMMUTER.

He might be missing his “particular set of skills,” but Liam Neeson still isn’t afraid to take matters into his own hands when it comes to protecting his cinematic family.

His latest vigilante thriller is The Commuter, a slick exercise in middle-class action-hero silliness that’s neither consistently exciting nor intriguing.

Neeson plays the title role as Michael, an ex-cop whose eventful day starts with being laid off from his job at a Manhattan insurance firm, where he’s only a few years from retirement. He can’t break the news to his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) over the phone, so he relies on an old police buddy (Patrick Wilson) and his fellow commuters for comforting words.

Then comes a seemingly random meeting with a stranger (Vera Farmiga) on the train, who offers him a get-rich-quick scheme that comes with ominous stipulations. Essentially, he must locate some cash aboard the Metro-North train, then use cryptic clues to find the witness to a mysterious death before the witness disembarks at an upcoming stop.

By the time he regrets accepting the assignment, Michael’s suburban family is being threatened by thugs, and he’s forced to rely on his own resourcefulness to spare his own life and those of his fellow passengers.

Neeson can pretty much sleepwalk through these types of roles, and his effortless charisma adds depth and sympathy to a sad-sack character.

Neeson’s fourth collaboration with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) flashes some moments of inspiration, such as an opening montage that pays tribute to the routines of everyday commuters and the multicultural melting pot that frequents public transportation. One confrontation in which Neeson wields an electric guitar also provides a highlight, and so does an amusing one-liner critical of Wall Street banks.

However, the derivative screenplay is eventually overwhelmed by arbitrary twists and ridiculous contrivances that dwindle rather than heighten the suspense, and evaporate any meaningful emotional investment in the outcome.

The film doesn’t gain much traction from its familiar claustrophobic setting aboard a crowded train, nor does it take much time to ponder the moral complexity inherent in its thin ticking-clock premise. Even before the final confrontation and big reveal, The Commuter has already run off the rails.

 

Rated PG-13, 104 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Jan. 12

Acts of Violence

That’s what moviegoers might want to perpetrate upon the makers of this incoherent and woefully formulaic vigilante thriller about a young woman (Mia Bolona) who is abducted by cohorts of a notorious human trafficker (Mike Epps) during her bachelorette party. While waiting for a grizzled cop (Bruce Willis) to investigate, her fiancé (Ashton Holmes) enlists his ex-military older brother (Cole Hauser) for a revenge mission. The film’s threadbare dialogue and obvious gaps in logic cancel out any excitement generated by the action sequences or any sincerity in the performances. It results in a clichéd and predictable genre exercise during which the outcome is never in doubt. (Rated R, 86 minutes).

 

Freak Show

While the message is commendable, this subversive teen comedy about tolerance and gender identity ultimately feels as shallow and superficial as the characters it seeks to condemn. Billy (Alex Lawther) is a flamboyantly gay student whose love for glamorous gender-bending fashion doesn’t jive with the beliefs of classmates as conservative private school where he’s forced to relocate. He responds to the bullying by finding a few open-minded friends to back his nomination for homecoming queen to prove a point. The stylish directorial debut of actress Trudie Styler (wife of Sting) benefits from an eclectic cast but unfortunately detours into a predictable and heavy-handed political satire. (Not rated, 95 minutes).

 

The Insult

What it lacks in realistic grounding, this provocative Lebanese drama compensates with strong performances and thematic resonance beyond its setting. It begins with an argument in working-class Beirut between an auto mechanic (Adel Karam) and a Palestinian construction foreman (Kamel El Basha) that stubbornly winds up in court, where the conflict is escalated by opportunistic lawyers into a national referendum on religion, refugees, and civil rights. Even as it manipulates the tension level a bit too forcefully, the screenplay by director Ziad Doueiri (The Attack) crafts a compelling framework to discuss lingering Middle East tensions and sociopolitical issues that are felt around the world. (Rated R, 112 minutes).

 

Paddington 2

Even if it’s not as fresh as its predecessor, this sequel retains plenty of gentle charm while not becoming burdened by prior success or expectations. This stylish and amusing follow-up chronicles the adventures of the mischievous marmalade-loving bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) while saving up money for a birthday gift for his beloved aunt, only to have it stolen by a washed-up actor (Hugh Grant) with ulterior motives. However, Paddington winds up being arrested and sent to prison, while his London family schemes to free him. Returning director Paul King sprinkles plenty of amusing sight gags into the film, which also boasts a terrific ensemble cast. (Rated PG, 103 minutes).

 

Saturday Church

The traditional coming-of-age story is given a fresh contemporary twist in this compassionate musical drama about a Bronx teenager (Luka Kain) trying to cope with his father’s death while wrestling with questions about his own spirituality and gender identity. While he sneaks out and meets a group of supportive LGBTQ friends on the streets, he doesn’t find the same level of acceptance at home, especially from his disciplinarian aunt (Regina Taylor). The film injects some vibrant musical sequences to supplement familiar themes, but the screenplay by rookie director Damon Cardasis primarily deserves credit for conveying a message of tolerance that’s more heartfelt than heavy-handed. (Not rated, 82 minutes).

Phantom Thread

Reynolds Woodcock is difficult to like, and so is Phantom Thread, the film in which he’s the lead character.

Yet the latest collaboration between filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) and actor Daniel Day-Lewis — in what he claims will be his final role prior to retirement — is a meticulously crafted and visually striking character study that doesn’t require sympathy to be stunning.

Day-Lewis plays Woodcock, a fashion designer in 1950s London whose dresses are responsible for some of the city’s most glamorous aristocratic trends. His personal life is one of repetition and isolation, with the only intimacy provided by fleeting encounters with fawning models and socialite customers.

Woodcock sees fabric on a body the same way an artist views paint on a canvas. Yet he’s also cold and aloof — an idiosyncratic perfectionist who becomes irritated with the slightest alteration to his routine. His demanding sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), is his assistant and his only trusted companion.

Then he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), an impetuous young waitress who causes him to lower his guard, gradually infiltrating his tight inner circle and becoming a muse. Their burgeoning relationship throws Woodcock’s life into sudden turmoil, and the results aren’t always pretty, such as when his frosty temperament is put on full display during a dinner-table fight over asparagus that provides an uneasy highlight.

While the low-key relationship drama is difficult to penetrate emotionally, much like Woodcock himself, Day-Lewis immerses into a troubled character with a powerfully understated portrayal that captivates throughout. Relative newcomer Krieps (Hanna) conveys an alluring charisma, and Manville likewise is terrific as the enigmatic Cyril.

Anderson’s sharply subtle and deliberately paced screenplay gradually builds tension beneath the surface, especially in the second half with some off-the-wall twists. The filmmaker offers insight into the creative process while sprinkling in some lighthearted moments.

Meanwhile, the film exquisitely captures its setting and subject matter, supplemented by a persistent score by frequent Anderson cohort Jonny Greenwood that’s both haunting and evocative.

In its first hour, Phantom Thread takes on the same qualities as its protagonist — admirable from a distance while struggling to achieve intimacy. However, it develops into a seductive if slightly creepy portrait of a tortured genius that ultimately succeeds by becoming audaciously unfashionable.

 

Rated R, 130 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Jan. 5

Blame

It might resemble another Mean Girls wannabe on the surface, but this earnest high-school drama has more ambition and substance, even if the overall result is muddled in this directorial debut for 22-year-old Quinn Shephard. She also stars as Abigail, a socially awkward bullying victim of her cliquish classmates, specifically Melissa (Nadia Alexander), a cheerleader in her drama class. The feud escalates after Abigail flirts with a substitute teacher (Chris Messina), who chooses her over Melissa to play the lead in “The Crucible.” Although Shephard sensitively navigates some tricky moral territory, her film never achieves much of a deeper emotional resonance, despite some strong performances. (Not rated, 99 minutes).

 

Sheikh Jackson

While it has some offbeat charm, this innocuous but highly uneven Egyptian drama lacks the polished execution to match its heartfelt ambition. It follows a pious imam (Ahmad Alfishawy) whose devout faith seems unbroken until he hears about Michael Jackson’s death. That stirs memories, told in flashback, of his rebellious teenage obsession with the King of Pop, and how it contributed to an estrangement from his overbearing father (Maged El Kedwany). The screenplay by director Amr Salama conveys powerful messages about acceptance and forgiveness, although it could have benefited from a lighter touch. Unfortunately, the inability to license any of Jackson’s music is a crippling blow. (Not rated, 93 minutes).

 

Stratton

A handful of stylish action sequences, including those involving speedboats and double-decker buses, can’t rescue this uninspired British thriller that feels like yet another cut-rate Jason Bourne knockoff. Stratton (Dominic Cooper) is an elite operative with the Special Boat Service, which is the English version of the Navy SEALs. His latest mission involves tracking a rogue Russian agent (Thomas Kretschmann) involved in chemical weapons plot, which also allows him to avenge the death of his American partner (Tyler Hoechlin). As the chases, shootouts and explosions pile up, so do the clichés, which derail any suspense the film might intermittently build amid its generic European locales. (Not rated, 94 minutes).

All the Money in the World

Although it takes place in the 1970s, All the Money in the World has the elements of a trashy contemporary reality show — international scandal, high-profile divorce, and infighting among the rich and famous.

This drama based on the true-life kidnapping of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty provides a stylish and well-acted yet highly uneven story about wealth and privilege run amok.

The story opens in Rome, where Getty’s teenage grandson (Charlie Plummer) is abducted and held for ransom by a gangsters who are well aware of his family’s fortune. His grandfather (Christopher Plummer) is described as “the richest man in the history of the world,” and loves reminding people of that.

He’s also a notorious miser who can easily afford the payment for his grandson’s safe return but doesn’t see sufficient reason to pay it, much to the chagrin of the boy’s mother (Michelle Williams), who’s become estranged from the family after divorcing Getty’s son (Andrew Buchan).

Getty’s solution is to dispatch one of his advisers (Mark Wahlberg) to negotiate the boy’s return “as quickly and as inexpensively as possible.” But it turns into an urgent high-stakes scenario involving parental love and affluent greed.

The film is perhaps most noteworthy for its last-minute casting change, with Kevin Spacey’s scenes as the Getty patriarch being cut in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations and quickly re-shot with Christopher Plummer.

The switch proves seamless rather than distracting, to the credit of veteran director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) and his team. And although performances shouldn’t regularly be judged by such circumstances, Plummer makes it look effortless despite the obvious challenges while portraying the most intriguing character in the film, a man whose actions or lack thereof are a trigger for everyone around him.

However, the screenplay struggles to allow for emotional investment. At least Williams cuts through the smugness with an empathetic performance that brings depth to a familiar role.

The character dynamics are compelling, as turmoil simmering beneath the surface causes the family to crumble. Yet the second half of the film detours into a standard-issue quest for vigilante justice with one-dimensional villains.

All the Money in the World is best when it focuses less on the kidnapping and more on the circumstances surrounding it. By trying to mix prestige melodrama and gritty thriller, much of the moral complexity becomes watered down, spiraling into narrative bankruptcy.

 

Rated R, 132 minutes.

Molly’s Game

Unless you’re an enthusiast of extreme winter sports, you might not be familiar with Molly Bloom, whose unusual path from snow to dough is the subject of Molly’s Game, which marks the feature directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network).

This compelling drama is not your usual sports underdog saga or tragic story of downfall and redemption, but rather a cautionary tale about the allure of the quick buck.

Molly (Jessica Chastain) was chasing Olympic dreams as a moguls skier during the late 1990s, under the tutelage of her hard-charging father (Kevin Costner) when injuries from a crash caused her to change course.

After a series of setbacks, she wound up running an underground poker game for high rollers — despite being essentially self-taught in both in terms of knowledge of the game and business acumen — and parlayed it into one of the most exclusive and lucrative of its kind, attracting players from around the world ranging from movie stars to mobsters.

Those are the flashbacks from Molly’s present-day legal troubles, which included her arrest for operating such a shady enterprise and her subsequent authorship of a memoir. As her lawyer (Idris Elba) asks bluntly: “You committed a felony and then wrote a book about it?”

Employing a jumbled narrative structure, Sorkin’s screenplay is well versed in the intricacies of skiing and gambling, even if it tends to bog down in poker terminology.

Along those lines, the narration is consistently sharp and incisive rather than pedantic, and it’s a good thing, because it’s ubiquitous — sometimes spilling into undisciplined rambling that a more experienced director might have kept in check.

Still, it doesn’t spoil a committed performance by Chastain that balances strength and vulnerability, portraying a feisty character burdened by athletic failure, parental pressure, and financial hardship. She’s more book-smart than street-smart, and might leave moviegoers conflicted — do we sympathize with her plight and praise her ingenuity, or do we condemn her willing involvement in a deceitful criminal enterprise? Either way, the film too easily portrays the brash Molly as a victim.

Molly’s Game is an uneven retelling of a fascinating true story that confronts the inherent moral complexity in its story, even if the actions of its protagonist are ethically dubious. It never cashes in its chips.

 

Rated R, 140 minutes.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

It might sound like a piece of fan fiction, but Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on a true-life celebrity encounter that evolved without any discussion of stalking scandals or restraining orders.

Even those who remember Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (The Bad and the Beautiful) probably don’t know about her role depicted in this drama about lost souls finding one another.

It begins in 1979, when an aging Gloria (Annette Bening) is isolated in a modest apartment in the titular city and still dreams of reviving her long-dormant big-screen career by taking some roles on the British stage.

Her young neighbor, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), shares her thespian aspirations from a newcomer’s perspective. That leads to them spending more time together, and eventually developing a deeper affection for one another, despite an age difference of several decades. He winds up becoming a caretaker of sorts while tolerating Gloria’s mercurial behavior, along with her neuroses and ailments.

Gradually, secrets are revealed that threaten to tear them apart, although the extent to which Gloria’s condition is mental, as opposed to physical, remains mostly unclear.

As directed by Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein), offers an evocative period re-creation of its working-class Liverpool neighborhood. The character-driven screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh (Nowhere Boy) — based on Turner’s memoir — is deliberately paced while employing a jumbled narrative chronology, although it shows a genuine affection for movie stars of a bygone era.

In a plum role as the washed-up diva, Bening brings depth and complexity alongside the inevitable scenery chewing. She’s boozy, impetuous, insecure, neurotic, and mentally unstable — yet still manages to generate moderate sympathy. Also credit her chemistry with Bell (Billy Elliot) that emphasizes the tenderness of their May-December relationship.

We’ve seen these struggling artist types before, on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and it’s generally easier for them to connect with one another than with the audience.

But even if it lacks deeper context and emotional resonance, the film winds up as a poignant and sensitively rendered love story with some powerfully intimate moments along the way. And if it prompts moviegoers to seek out the actual work of its subject and others of her classic era, then all the better. Perhaps in a figurative sense, the wordy title is true after all.

 

Rated R, 106 minutes.