Category Archives: Film and Television

12 Strong: Exciting but Embellished Portrayal of Operation Enduring Freedom’s Opening Salvo

Twelve special operations soldiers team up with the Northern Alliance to strike back against the Taliban in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in 12 Strong (2018). Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, and directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, 12 Strong is based on the book Horse Soldiers (2009) by Doug Stanton. Unfortunately, epic battle scenes and a compelling real-life story aren’t enough to rescue this film from its lackluster execution and direction.

Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is moving to a staff job when terrorists destroy the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. With the help of Chief Warrant Officer 5 Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), he convinces Lt. Colonel Max Bowers (Rob Riggle), Commander of 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, to allow him to rejoin his team and deploy with Task Force Dagger against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

In Uzbekistan, Captain Nelson convinces Colonel John Mulholland (William Fichtner) to allow his team to go in first by displaying confidence and a knowledge of Afghan history, despite never having served in combat. Prominent members of his team include SFC Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and SFC Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes). Together, they must earn the trust of an unpredictable Afghan warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), and help him defeat his Taliban rivals around the city of Mazar-i-Sharif using U.S. air power.

Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar), leader of the Taliban forces, is a dark-haired, mustache-twirling villain who executes a woman early in the film for teaching young girls to read. After several confrontations and missteps, Captain Nelson wins Dostum’s trust and together they overwhelm the Taliban in the “Tiangi Gap” and free Mazar-i-Sharif, mostly on horseback.

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Movies I Hated in 2017

Right now, some high-powered consultants are being paid more than I’ll ever make in my lifetime to figure out why Hollywood movies are bombing at the box office. I’m sure they don’t want my advice, but here it is anyway: Enough with the annoying political and social messages! Audiences go to the theater to be entertained, not lectured or preached to. Hollywood has become the Rod Farva of the film industry–trying so hard but failing so tragically.

While I can’t blame all these dumpster fires on big budget studios, here are a few examples of the worst films released in 2017 (in no particular order):

The Hatred. Someone reportedly spent $800,000 on this piece of garbage. Four college coeds and a young girl must survive the night in a farmhouse haunted by an ex-NAZI and his daughter in The Hatred, written and directed by Michael G. Kehoe. The horror genre has long attracted up-and-coming filmmakers willing to take risks on shoestring budgets. This sometimes leads to cinematic masterpieces but often amounts to trash fit for the landfill. This film belongs solidly in the latter category. This is probably one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. The Hatred amounts to nothing more than a YouTube jumpscare short with a budget. [Read more…]

Rough Night. When Jessica “Jess” Thayer decides to plan a wedding while running for state senate, she’ll need a little help from her college friends, Alice, Frankie, Blair, and Pippa, to pull off a wild bachelorette party in Miami. Hilarity ensues when the ladies get drunk, snort a bunch of cocaine, and accidentally murder a male stripper, all while leading Jess’ loyal fiance, Peter, to believe she wants to cancel the wedding. In the end, they get away Scott free because, well, I guess manslaughter isn’t a thing in Florida. Comedy gold! This isn’t just a bad movie, it’s a morally reprehensible one. [Read more…]

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Movies I Liked in 2017

2017 was an interesting year for movies, and not just because of the real-life spectacle and drama coming from Hollywood. The old film studios aren’t just imploding due to sex scandals, they’re also imploding at the box office. The new Star Wars was the only thing staving off a dismal year. 2017’s summer movie season was the lowest grossing summer for the movie business in 25 years. There are more interesting films coming out on Netflix than being released in the theater. Several Netflix releases are among my favorite films of the year.

I certainly didn’t see every movie to come out in 2017, but here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order):

Detroit. Written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Detroit dramatically recounts an incident in which three black men were allegedly murdered by police at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit Riot. Despite some creative license with characters, events, and dialog, Detroit feels authentic, and its emotional impact is incredible. Although Detroit doesn’t disguise its message, it isn’t entirely one-sided, showing the destructiveness of the mob and the efforts of some white policemen and authority figures try to combat the excesses of racist officers. By far the best historic drama of 2017. [Read more…]

Ingrid Goes West. A social-media obsessed woman with borderline personality disorder moves to Los Angeles to insert herself into another woman’s life, severely disrupting the lives of everyone she encounters in this dark comedy by debut writer-director Matt Spicer. Its humor mainly comes from Aubrey Plaza‘s performance as Ingrid Thorburn, the unfortunate young woman just looking for a best friend. It’s a shame the film didn’t do better at the box office, but its dark lampooning of our superficial obsession with social-media probably hit too close to home for most audiences. [Read more…]

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter

A young girl’s isolation at a Catholic boarding school in Upstate New York leads to increasingly disturbing behavior, while a psych-ward escapee drifts closer, in the nail-biting supernatural thriller, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015). Originally titled February, writer/director Oz Perkins intended this film to be a meditation on loneliness. He crafted a creepy and disturbing tale that has all the elements of a good horror movie.

The film is essentially divided into two stories that progressively come together in a surprise ending. In the first, a freshman girl named Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is staying at her Catholic boarding school over winter break because her parents have failed to pick her up. Rose (Lucy Boynton), a senior, told her parents the wrong date to buy time so she could find out whether she was pregnant. They are watched by two nuns. Rose receives several phone calls from a mysterious voice she calls “Dad,” and her behavior becomes more disturbing with each phone call.

In the second story, a man named Bill (James Remar) picks up a young hitchhiker named Joan (Emma Roberts) over the objections of his wife, Linda (Lauren Holly). It’s implied Joan escaped from a hospital, but Bill believes she reminds him of his daughter, Rose, who was brutally murdered several years earlier. Bill and Linda are traveling to their daughter’s former school to lay flowers. Bill tries to emotionally connect with Joan, believing God brought them together. Joan replies that she doesn’t believe in God.

**Spoilers** At the school, Kat brutally murders Rose and the nuns, decapitates them, and offers them up to Satan in a macabre ritual in the boiler room. A police officer confronts her and fires a shot. Later, in the hospital, a priest exorcises the demon from Kat, and she sees a shadowy figure disappear. In the present, Joan (now revealed to be a grown-up Kat) kills both Bill and Holly, steals their car, and completes her journey back to the boiler room, only to find it unlit and silent.

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The Best War Films Show Both Sides

I recently watched 12 Strong (2018), Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest offering and a fictionalized account of the opening salvo against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The movie was exciting enough, with a fair share of action and intense battle scenes, but it just wasn’t great. After writing my review (to be posted later this month), I started to think about what elements make a great war film.

King Edward I in Braveheart

Nearly every great war film has one thing in common (aside from epic music): they at least attempt to show both sides of the story. Think about Battle of the Bulge (1965), Patton (1970), Braveheart (1995), We Were Soldiers (2002), Gettysburg (1993), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Each of these films involve a conflict between two sides and show the motivations of both sides, to varying degrees. The Japanese portion of Tora! Tora! Tora! (about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) was actually made by Japanese filmmakers.

Establishing an antagonist with clear, realistic motivations is key to creating a compelling story in a “man against man” conflict. This is especially true in war. In Braveheart, we see both William Wallace and King Edward I as they attempt to defeat each other. No one is confused about whether Edward I is the bad guy. We see him do bad guy things, like throw his son’s lover out a window. But he’s given plenty of screen time to develop his personality and explain his motives.

Vietnamese General Nguyen Huu An in We Were Soldiers

In We Were Soldiers, the story switches between the Vietnamese and American points of view. North Vietnamese General Nguyen Huu An was portrayed as a capable and worthwhile opponent. Battle of the Bulge, Patton, A Bridge too Far (1977), and even Enemy at the Gates (2001) all portray German officers as equally courageous, brilliant, and daring as the heroes.

In 12 Strong, the antagonist is Mullah Razzan, leader of the Taliban forces, a dark-haired, mustache-twirling villain who executes a woman early in the film for teaching young girls to read. That’s all we ever learn about him. What’s his motivation? Why is he fighting? Why does he think the Taliban can win? No one seems to care, and so neither does the audience. Razzan and the hundreds of faceless Taliban fighters are just paper soldiers to be blown up.

Col. Hessler in Battle of the Bulge

You could argue perhaps the Taliban are too dastardly to be given a more humanized role. But were the Nazis less dastardly? Battle of the Bulge was released 20 years after the end of World War 2. Everyone knew about Nazi atrocities, and Allied propaganda had done a good job of dehumanizing them, yet Col. Hessler is portrayed as a competent and worthy opponent. His background and motivations are clearly established.

There’s something to be said for showing both points of view from a historical perspective as well. These were real people who engaged in a real conflict. Film gives us a unique opportunity to learn more about why men of both sides fought and died, how they perceived the conflict, and what was at stake. That’s what separates a historically-based drama from an action movie where a musclebound hero lays waste to a horde of faceless minions.

Unfortunately, 12 Strong missed an opportunity to show a more accurate, compelling, and nuanced view of early days of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Battle of the Sexes: A Tedious and Unfunny 1970s Sports Dramedy

A female tennis star wrestles with the patriarchy and her own sexuality in the gyno-centric sports dramedy Battle of the Sexes (2017), written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton. A retelling of the most-watched tennis match of all time, between ex-champion Bobby Riggs and top female player Billie Jean King, seemed promising, but something misfired along the way. It was partly billed as a comedy, and features both Sarah Silverman and Steve Carell, but ends up only being mildly amusing.

It’s the early 1970s. Tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) confront Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) about gross inequality in tennis prize money between male and female players. In outrage, they storm off to found their own women’s tennis association. Meanwhile, ex-tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) has hit a new low as his gambling addiction threatens to tear apart his family.

As her new league takes off, Billie Jean King’s behavior threatens her marriage as well, when she meets hairstylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and discovers she is attracted to women. This affair seems to have little effect on her life, however, when her cuckolded husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell), shrugs it off and continues to faithfully dote on her.

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs comes up with a way to exploit controversy over the women’s lib movement to make money and challenges top female tennis players to an exhibition bout. He handily defeats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who is portrayed as somehow flawed and weakened by her loving devotion to her husband and child. Billie Jean King finally accepts the challenge and ends up humiliating Riggs in a match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.”

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The Untamed: Wildly Provocative and Bleak Sci-Fi Horror

A young woman comes to grips with her failing marriage and homosexual husband, and oh yeah there’s something about a tentacle sex alien too, in The Untamed (2016), a Mexican sci-fi horror film written and directed by Amat Escalante. Originally titled La region salvaje, it was released in the U.S. in 2017. The film gratuitously uses a provocative subtext to explore serious drama and sexual themes in small town Mexico.

Amat Escalante is a Spanish director known for his gritty portrayal of the Mexican experience. The Untamed paints an unvarnished portrait, and even the natural scenes are bleak and depressing. Its original title translates to “the wild region,” which I’m assuming refers both to untamed nature and female sexuality. There are several close up shots that reinforce that theme scattered throughout the film.

Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) and Ángel (Jesus Meza) are raising two children in an unhappy marriage. Alejandra’s brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), is a nurse at a local hospital. Ángel and Fabian are having an affair. Things get weird when Fabian meets Veronica (Simone Bucio), who visits the hospital after being bitten by a lusty tentacle alien her parents (?) keep in their barn.

Veronica lures Fabian to the barn, where the creature brutalizes him into a coma. He is later found naked in a ditch and brought to the hospital, where Alejandra meets Veronica. Police arrest Ángel for Fabian’s injuries because a bystander saw the two men arguing in a parking lot before Fabian disappeared.

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Super Dark Times: A Harrowing and Tense Coming-of-Age Thriller

In Super Dark Times (2017), a teen must come to grips with his increasingly psychotic friend in this harrowing and tense coming-of-age thriller. Written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, and directed by Kevin Phillips, this indie film’s competency highlights why Hollywood is failing. Younger, more creative filmmakers are using technology and innovation to craft solid, beautifully-rendered films that put big-budget studios to shame.

Director Kevin Phillips is mostly known for his short film cinematography, and he’s spent the past twelve years honing his craft. Nearly every scene in this film is beautiful, but it’s not another example of “style over substance.” The movie is structurally sound, competently written, and the dialogue is believable. It reminds me of films from the ’80s and early ’90s, which tried to ground fantastic or extreme situations in reality.

As Super Dark Times opens, a buck has accidentally crashed into a high school and severely injured itself. Two police officers clear the scene and put it down. This dramatic and brutal scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. Enter four acquaintances, childhood friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), Daryl (Max Talisman), and an 8th-grader named Charlie (Sawyer Barth). Zach and Josh both have a crush on classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), but she eventually chooses Zach.

The kids discover a bag of marijuana and a samurai sword in Josh’s brother’s bedroom and take it to a park to mess around. Josh and Daryl get into an argument and Josh accidentally stabs him in the neck, killing him. The teens hide Daryl’s body in the woods and try to forget about the crime, but Josh’s increasingly erratic behavior stokes Zach’s guilt and paranoia. The film’s sickening climax is disturbing and difficult to watch, but the entire film has you on edge from start to finish.

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