Tag Archives: based on a true story

The Red Sea Diving Resort

In the 1970s, Captain America went to Africa disguised as Captain Israel, where he assembled a crack team of Super Jews, including a harpoon-wielding Hawkeye and a Black Widow with feathered bangs.

Well, okay, that’s not exactly how it happened, and it DID mostly happen.

Ethiopian Jews were being slaughtered in their homes in the late 70s and early 80s, so Mossad agents led families on a 1000km walk to Sudan where, if they survived the journey, they became refugees waiting to be taken to Jerusalem, which was the tricky part. Sudan was receiving a stipend from the UN for each refugee they took in. The refugees starved, but the Sudanese government was not interested in losing easy money. In order to smuggle them out, the Mossad agents posed as hoteliers, actually running a resort, to remove Ethiopians by sea, toward a waiting Israeli Navy Seal ship.

The crew is run by Ari (a bearded Chris Evans), a reckless agent known for running into danger without a plan for getting out. Always by his side, the very courageous local Kabede (Michael Kenneth Williams), for whom this is not a mission but very simply life.

Anyway, I callously poked fun at the casting of Captain America in this film, but it is a genuine problem. Not Chris Evans per se – he’s fine. He’s just too identifiably heroic, and the camera knows it. The story is infatuated with the idea of this rescue mission and it pumps up the hero aspect to 11 while disregarding their humanity. We know the group’s Black Widow (ie, only female component, played by Haley Bennett) is a mother and that she has left her child(ren?) behind for months or years in order to help save strangers but literally nothing is made of it. Who is she? How does she cope? How do the kids? Where are the kids? Ari is also a father, with an ex-wife who is already tired of his bullshit before this story even begins. His backstory is almost as empty as Black Widow’s, but his guilt is exculpated by a crayon drawing that implies his daughter forgives him for his repeated abandonment. What I’m saying is: the Avengers are super heroes who are just doing their jobs. In this case, the Mossad agents are real people with real loved ones and lives back home that they’ve sacrificed in order to save people, not from Loki or Ultron or Thanos, but from genocide, a less-glamourous, real-world problem that most people look away from. But the movie takes the one thing that it’s got going for it and ignores it almost completely.

Okay, scrub that: the film had 2 potential things going for it – the heroes, sure, but also the victims. Because these Ethiopian refugees are perhaps the true heroes of this story, and maybe any story. I’ve always thought that, as bloated as End Game was, the only story I was really interested in is the one they never told – that of normal people on Earth, those left behind by the snap, and those who disappeared because of it. What is their experience? Such a global, world-shifting event deserves some story-telling but never got any (they failed to even really touch on it in Spiderman Far From Home, disappointingly). But in this case, the Ethiopians escape with little else besides their lives, and know they are lucky to have that much. Many are missing children and spouses and parents. Many will lose more along the arduous journey, only to end up in a crowded, unhygienic camp where their bodies are worth money to their captors, so they are given just barely the means to stay alive. And that’s only half the trip: next they’re going to smuggled past armed check points, onto rubber rafts, and raced through the choppy waves of the Red Sea onto vessels that will sail them into a new life, one so different as to be unimaginable from their straw hut lives in Ethiopia. Now that’s a story. But by all means let’s eschew that for more of Michiel Huisman in a speedo.

So yeah, The Red Sea Diving Resort fails to overcome the same tired old tropes. It feels like a compilation of other movies you’ve already seen, but not a best-of compilation, more like a cross-section of the just-okay bits. Which is a weird compilation, I’ll grant you that. Who’d want to watch it? Not me. Not really. Not even for a bearded Chris Evans, still very much in Captain America mode.

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Stockholm

An American cowboy criminal flies to Sweden to host their first hostage situation. I mean, I don’t think he’s particularly interested in setting precedents, which is funny, because as you might have gleaned from the title, he’s about to create a situation that’ll become famous enough to named after it.

Lars Nystrom (Ethan Hawke) holds up a bank in Stockholm, but he doesn’t rob it. Instead, he uses it as leverage to have old buddy Gunnar Sorenson (Mark Strong) released from prison. On a roll, he throws in some extras, like a million dollars cash, bullet-proof vests, and a getaway car – standard bank robber demands. The dude doesn’t have an original bone in his body. He’s also not a planner: he asks specifically for a Mustang, and as someone who has not one but two of them in the driveway, I can tell you, you aren’t fitting hostages in that backseat. It’s a two-door car. When you’re running from the law, you don’t have precious minutes to waste trying to fold up grown-ups into a non-existent backseat.

But anyway. Lars has taken a couple of lovely ladies hostage, which is the kind he prefers. And also a dude, who hid rather than evacuated.

Stockholm syndrome is a condition which causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors during captivity. Sure it’s strictly irrational, but fear and stress and tension do create a rather specific kind of intimacy. Hostages and hostage-takers may feel like they’ve been through something together. It’s a form of bonding, in a weird way. It doesn’t make sense, but trauma does fucked up things sometimes. Stockholm syndrome is a fucked up thing.

Why would bank teller, wife, and mother Bianca (Noomi Rapace) bond with her captor? Perhaps partly because the cops seem inept. They’re not doing enough to save her and the others. The Prime Minister is not allowing the robbers to leave with hostages, and so they stay, festering in the bank.

Ethan Hawke and Noomi Rapace give terrific performances, but they’re stunted by a script that fails to do justice to the real events it portrays. Egregiously, it fails to sell the syndrome that gives it its title. I never felt a strong bond between captor and captives, certainly not one that would justify the three hostages not only refusing to testify, but fundraising for the dude’s defense. I rarely felt connected to anyone, or moved by anyone and I never felt any definitive chemistry between the characters either. This is not merely a missed opportunity, but supposedly the whole point of the movie, and it’s delivered so weakly it may as well not exist. I will not and cannot recommend what was ultimately a disappointment.

The Best of Enemies

Picture it: Durham, North Carolina. 1971. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) is a civil rights activist. C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) is the Exalted Cyclops of the KKK (the KKK should clearly not be allowed to make up their own titles). The two are about to clash over school integration.

City council is far from unbiased. Some will physically turn their backs on a person of colour, others will call on their friends in the klan to bolster their numbers. It’s not exactly the kind of town ripe for integration, and it likely wouldn’t have occurred to them had the black school not burned down, forcing some drastic decisions. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) is given the unenviable, perhaps insurmountable task of mediating the two sides to negotiate a compromise, one city council will abide. A charrette, he calls it, though no one’s ever heard of the thing. or a collaborative, intensive community planning session. Riddick is a black man who has the magical ability to earn concessions from either side, but the “sides” aren’t exactly fairly drawn. If black vs white is enough to make your skin crawl, imagine black vs racists, men in hoods who won’t even concede that people of colour are people, who would wish the people sitting beside them dead, and in fact have taken shots at them.

1971 isn’t that long ago. It’s during Henson’s lifetime, and Rockwell’s.

The costume and makeup department have had a whole job of de-sexualizing Taraji P. Henson for this role. Her face is unadorned, her boobs are down to her belt. But her strength and presence are as keenly felt as ever.

The charrette ends up being a fascinating glimpse into a community – in 1971, as an attempt at a solution, and in 2019 as a reflection of the time. It’s a great reminder that it’s much harder to hate people you know. Humanizing the other side is always an eye-opener. These select community representatives spent a week together, discussing the issue, but also eating lunch side by side and taking field trips, sitting knee to knee on a yellow bus.

As interesting as I find the topic, the film itself is a little uneven, and thus, a little difficult to like without reservation. Writer-director Robin Bissell sympathizes with KKK president Ellis enough to give him a full backstory: a disabled son, a struggling business, an ambivalent wife. Meanwhile, Atwater, a real-life grassroots activist who fought the war on poverty, is given much, much less. Still, the two become…friends? Perhaps too strong a word. But familiarity reduces contempt. They are no longer just stereotypes to each other. And the fact is: perhaps this de-segregation thing is better for poor white folks than city council wants them to know.

This is how barriers are broken: regular people just listening to each other as best they can. That’s a lesson that still needs learning. That we have the power to influence each other, not by arguing, but by trying to understand. Sure it takes courage to stand up to your enemies, but it takes far more to stand up to your friends when you see that they are wrong.

The Upside

Dell has a record and a chip on his shoulder. He’s looking for work just enough to appease his parole officer but not enough to actually get a job. But then one lands in his lap anyway.

Now, to be fair: Dell (Kevin Hart) hasn’t done anything to earn this job. Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) has lined up plenty of qualified, competent health care aides to interview for the position. But Philip (Bryan Cranston) doesn’t want the good ones. Philip is disgustingly wealthy, newly paraplegic, and harboring a death wish. No one else is prepared to respect his DNR and he’s hoping a fuck up like Dell will mean merciful death – and soon.

The Upside is an American remake of  a French film called The Intouchables. It was wildly popular in France and it’s a well-made film, but both iterations have MV5BODE2NDI3NzUxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTIzMDQxNzM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1497,1000_AL_the same problem. They’re about a wealthy white dude introducing a poor black man to “culture.” The condescension implicit in the premise is so problematic it’s hard to look beyond it. Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston have passable chemistry but you’re going to love or hate this film, mostly depending on whether you can embrace the formula. Because The Upside doesn’t even pretend to deviate from The Intouchables’ formula. Not for one stinking minute.

Old white rich guy and slightly younger ex-con have a lot to learn from each other. Philip is grieving the loss of his wife (which never amounts to anything) and his legs, while Dell is dealing with repercussions over the loss of his freedom, and his family. Not that he ‘lost’ his family so much as neglected them and now thinks he can win them back by throwing money at the situation.

The direction is nothing special. The movie relies on the whole ‘based (VERY LOOSELY) on a true story’ shtick and it’s very familiar and uninspired. The performances are fine; the best thing you can say about them is that they won’t be remembered in anyone’s career retrospective. But none of this really matters because at the end of the day (or the start of the film), the movie just feels racist and wrong.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

It’s hard out there for a single woman. And there is perhaps nothing more illustrative of that fact than the woman who stayed with Ted Bundy, infamous serial killer.

Liz (Lily Collins) is the dumb bitch and Ted (Zac Efron) is the charming son of a gun who gets away with it.

Liz wants to believe him. Or she wants to want to believe him. Sure it’s increasingly hard when the convictions start rolling in and other states start throwing in their charges as well. The country is littered with the bodies of dead young women. It’s getting tricky to be in love with Ted Bundy. But no matter how much evidence piles up against him, no MV5BMTk5NzEyNTY0M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzA4MTU4NjM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,893_AL_matter how much sense it makes to her rational self, the heart is a stubborn muscle, and it often betrays common sense. There’s an early scene wherein Liz and Ted go dog shopping at a local shelter. She walks by some real cuties, including the unicorn of dog shelters, a real life golden retriever puppy, but she sets her eyes on a dog even I thought looked suspicious. “It’s going to tear her throat out,” I said, half joking. And then it turned aggressive a split second later. Liz is as good at choosing dogs as she is at choosing men.

Liz isn’t the only one who doesn’t take him seriously enough. The cops often have him behind bars only to let him slip away. One mustache later and he’s picking up women again. And, you know, brutally murdering them. But the movie completely glosses over those parts. Rather it focuses on Bundy’s manipulation of the women in his life, of the truth and what it means, of the judicial system itself, of the media and its perception of him. Bundy is the ring master of a certified media circus, and a continued magnet for a certain brand of chick who insist they find him “dreamy.”

Strangely, the film seems more in contempt of the women who love and help and care for him than it is of the man convicted of so many vile and wicked crimes. It’s an odd take I’m not sure the world needed it. The only thing that saves this movie from itself is Zac Efron’s performance, and I bet you never thought you’d hear anyone say that in your life. As Bundy, Efron is a man of misplaced convictions, a man who believes his own lies – and his own hype. He’s a shark, but he’s also a master of charm and good manners when he’s not ripping into your flesh. And while it’s a compelling performance, it’s also part of the problem. The movie with the long, annoying title shows all the facets of Bundy’s personality that a woman might fall for, and very little of the terrible violence he perpetrated on dozens of innocent victims.

The Highwaymen

In 1934, the infamous criminal duo Bonnie & Clyde were seemingly unstoppable. Their crime spree was turning more serious and their body count higher each day. Though they enjoyed almost movie-star status in certain circles, they were an embarrassment to the law enforcement they continued to evade – including Hoover’s FBI men.

The Texas Rangers have long since been disbanded – too lawless, too unsupervised. But Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) manages to convince Texas governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) that since her new police force has proved ineffectual, perhaps what is needed is just a couple of highwaymen, doing things the old fashioned way.

Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) chafes in his retirement, and though he hasn’t even held a MV5BMjM2NDg5NjQzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzMyNzI5NjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_gun in his hand in years, he doesn’t take much convincing. Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) is a little more reluctant but pride is a tricky thing.

Following Bonnie & Clyde’s bloody trail is a complicated thing. These criminals are hailed as heroes by some, protected by family and friends. The men discuss whether they could shoot a woman, if it came to that. Neither really want it to come to that, but a job is a job is a job. It’s morally muddy ground maybe, but the script is a little shy about saying so, so it merely tiptoes around these dirty puddles, relying too heavily on the grizzled buddy-cop dynamic of Costner and Harrelson. And it’s not a bad dynamic at that: the two do a good job of seeming beaten down by their lives and their choices. But the movie plays it safe, and frankly, sometimes boring. Well, not boring, exactly, but not nearly as jittery and exciting as you might think literally any movie remotely associated with Bonnie & Clyde would be. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Police work isn’t all car chases and whizzing bullets. Nor was Bonnie and Clyde’s life of crime nearly as glamourous as it was made out to be at the time. The actual truth is lost to us – no witnesses are alive today, and those that talked at the time tended to conflict each other’s stories quite a bit.

I imagine this movie will appeal most to a certain demographic: those inclined to beaten-up recliners and canned nuts. It’s a bit of a dad movie.

The Old Man & The Gun

Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) is a charming old rascal. He meets Jewel (Sissy Spacek) on the side of the road in front of her broken down truck while still in the getaway portion of a bank heist. Would she believe him even if he told her?

Based on a true story, Forrest Tucker was a Texan bank robber who escaped San Quentin at the age of 70 and went on yet another crime spree in the early 80s. Well, his whole life, really, when he wasn’t in prison, which he often was. But then he always escaped and went straight back to the only thing that ever made him happy. His victims would often note how happy he looked, how polite he was. A real mv5bmta2odriy2utnzq1zi00zjzklwe4mwyty2u1odiznty2yzc2xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntc5otmwotq@._v1_gentleman. John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is the cop who just happens to be making a deposit on the morning of one of Forrest’s robberies. He vows to chase him and his Over-The-Hill Gang (Danny Glover, Tom Waits).

The Old Man & The Gun isn’t just a tribute to a bygone era of movie-making; it looks and feels like it’s part of the period. It’s the slowest-moving heist movie you’ll see this century, and not just because Redford’s hips aren’t what they used to be. It’s just that director David Lowery isn’t so interesting in the cops and robbers part as he is in making a fitting tribute to Robert Redford. The camera lingers on his impish grin, still capable of commanding a scene after all these years. The film is an homage to him in many ways – to his past filmography, to his status as a living legend. If this is indeed Redford’s last role (he has announced his intention to retire from acting), you couldn’t have found a better one. Lowery reworked the script, molding it from true crime to something more of a love letter to one of his favourite actors.