WW2 was ending, but for some, the work was just beginning. Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) will spend the war’s aftermath investigating art – art stolen from the Jews as they fled or were removed from their homes. The few lucky enough to return found their homes stripped of valuables, and many of those pieces are still being searched for today. Piller is tasked with investigating renowned Dutch artist Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), who is accused of selling Vermeer’s Christ and the Adulteress to the Nazis.
People were still rebuilding and recovering from the war so there was little mercy for suspected Nazi collaborators/conspirators/sympathizers. But something strange happens to Piller as he looks into van Meegeren’s background: he begins to suspect that he’s innocent. With the help of Minna (Vickey Krieps) and Dekker (Roland Moller), Piller will have to dig awfully deep to prove van Meegeren’s assertion that he is not a Nazi-loving traitor but a patriot who swindled the Nazis by selling them fake Vermeers painted by none other than himself.
Is van Meegeren’s story simply too good to be true? Does he have any credibility? Is he playing Piller, with his life on the line? Is there any post-war courtroom that would find him anything other than worthy of hanging? Is van Meegeren a master forger or a master of deception?
The best thing about this movie is Pearce’s performance; van Meegeren is funny, flagrant, and flamboyant, eminently entertaining even while on trial for his life. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine, but rarely rise above the perfunctory material. The Last Vermeer is a fascinating true story not particularly done justice by this paint-by-numbers film. Director Dan Friedkin lacks the inspiration to make this something special. It is a good but not great historical drama that gets the job done but fails to capture the imagination.
This is the true story of Mohamedou Salahi, a man from Mauritania who was kidnapped from his home and detained and (it goes without saying) tortured in Guantanamo Bay by the U.S. government in the wake of 9/11 for years without being charged with a single crime.
Salahi (Tahar Rahim) has been languishing in a cell in Cuba for years by the time we meet him; he’s just added a sympathetic lawyer to his cause. Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) takes a lot of flak for defending a terrorist but everyone’s supposed to have the same rights, bad guy or good guy, innocent or guilty. Right? Yeah, right. The US government believes it can switch its own laws, conditions, and human rights on and off at will, and hide their worst transgressions offshore (ahem, Cuba). Nancy adds Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) to her team, and off they trot to good old Guantanamo where they learn they’re in for an extremely uphill battle. Meanwhile, the other side is covered by Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) who isn’t having the easiest time either. Meanwhile, fair to say Mohamedou is having the absolute worst time of all because as you may have heard, Guantanamo is more or less synonymous with horrible abuse.
Tahar Rahim’s performance is magnetic, finding the sweet spot between hero and villain that is every shade of human, and his nomination is well deserved. In fact, Foster, Cumberbatch, and to a lesser extent Woodley, are in top form as well (but look out for Benedict’s Southern accent and report back on your opinion immediately!). The story is fascinating even if you’ve read extensively about it before. Kevin Macdonald’s direction, however, is simplistic and straight-forward. The Mauritanian isn’t so much a good movie as a compelling story. It’s solidly well-made in a no-frills way but won’t impress anyone beyond basic competence. Should you watch it? I think it’s interesting and informative and covers a pretty important topic that most Americans seem to have largely ignored. The answer is yes: check out The Mauritanian. It is necessary and infuriating.
Robot soldiers fight alongside human ones in the near future – and against them, robots on either side of this conflict, a storm of bullets raining down. Two men are hit, and their commanding officer makes plans to pull them to safety, but an ocean away, in the middle of the Nevada desert, a young drone pilot named Harp (Damson Idris) eats gummy bears and disobeys orders, launching a strike that kills the two in order to save the other 38. Harp is court-martialed and sent to the demilitarized zone for a reminder of the human cost of his lethal button pushing.
There he meets Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie), an A.I. enhanced cyborg soldier who’s selected him for a mission outside the wire. Leo’s biotech is extremely convincing (he can even feel pain) but make no mistake – he’s a military machine. A military weapon, in fact, a supersoldier who’s excellent in close combat and whose A.I. is so advanced it can follow the threads of these conflicts in ways that no human leaders ever have. Which is what he needs Harp for, a man he turns out to have hand-chosen because of his ability to think outside the box. They’re going to dodge robot soldiers and angry insurgents to chase a warlord hellbent on securing himself some neglected nukes. Leo can’t pursue this one his own; he’s got built-in fail-safes to prevent that, but where his investigation would constitute a flaw in his programming, Harp is free to do so based solely on a human hunch.
I enjoyed this movie for a couple of reasons. First among them is the Asimov angle, the king of sci-fi who wrote all those clever rules of robotics, and whose every thesis went something like: beware artificial intelligence, because it will inevitably figure out that humans need to be protected from themselves, and we won’t like the measures they take to do so. Except in Outside The Wire’s case, what Leo establishes fairly quickly is that the real enemy is the U.S. military, even though he’s technically meant to be fighting on its side.
Robots, it turns out, aren’t as blindly patriotic as we might like. Lee sees things from both points of view, and he comes to some conclusions that the American government might not appreciate. It’s a little sad that it takes a robot to consider the the socio-political aspect, to put himself in someone else’s shoes and examine other perspectives, but there you have it. It’s what we’ve come to. Asimov is always right. A.I. will always find us lacking. Is this the movie that’s going to help heal America after this most divisive period in its history? Highly doubtful. Most people will just be watching or the action sequences, and that’s fine too.
The truth, however, is that Outside The Wire isn’t a terrific movie. It’s not the blockbuster stuff you’ve been craving. Leo can’t reveal his master plan to Harp all at once, so it’s hidden from us as well, making for an occasionally confusing and scattershot plot. It feels like it takes us through a series of switchbacks that aren’t entirely earned. What it’s really counting on is that you’ll be so pleased by the Transformer-like Gumps (the scary robot soldiers) that you’ll only be paying half attention to the story.
Still, the action is decent, and so is the relationship between Leo and Harp, like Training Day if Denzel was also the Terminator. That kind of thing. It’s kind of fun to watch Mackie play a cyborg soldier since we’ve seen him be a flesh and blood soldier in Hurt Locker, and an enhanced super hero in the Marvel universe. This character kind of melds those roles together, a robot pretending to be human with his own thoughts and feelings about this war and what its outcome should be. Of course, a global conflict is tough for a single robot to take on alone – though now that I think about it, I suppose we’ve seen A.I. do much more, and much worse, so I think it’s fair to say: fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.
Alice (Gemma Arterton) is a reclusive, curmudgeonly writer, whom the locals refer to as “the witch.” Her writings often pointedly refer to the various ways women have been unfairly portrayed, but what are you going to do?
One day, a young boy named Frank (Lucas Bond) shows up at her door, an evacuee from London to be kept safe during the WW2 blitz. Alice doesn’t like kids. To be fair, it seems to be her general regard toward all humans, but Alice doesn’t want a kid in her house. It’s nothing personal against Frank, she just has work to do and no fucks to give. She reluctantly agrees to house him temporarily, until another family can be found. But pretty much everyone in her small village has already taken in children and she does have a big ole house all to herself.
As Frank begins to worm his way into her heart, we learn that Alice’s self-imposed isolation is the result of a broken heart, a forbidden romance with another woman, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is now just a figment of her past, though one that still haunts her. Clearly Alice has lived with only her memories for a long time, but with a real boy as her roommate, she’s brought down to the human realm where there is a war going on and people, such as Frank’s parents, are in real peril.
This film nearly lost me, being just a little too easy, a little too neatly contrived. However, it’s anchored by a performance from Arterton that just floored me. Alice’s naked longing and repressed self-expression are controlled with such precision by Arterton, it’s a remarkable role for her, but she’s actually got some very able costars from a surprising place – the kids. Both Bond and Dixie Egerickz, who plays Frank’s playmate, are wonderful, offering grounded and thoughtful performances considering these kids are growing up in a time where childhood is pretty much non-existent
I remember reading about young war evacuees when I was a kid myself, and I’ve always been fascinated by this ultimate act of mutual aid, adopting a stranger’s child, sheltering them during a difficult time, providing a safe home for kids at risk of dying in air raids in the city. Mothers had to place such trust in the kindness of strangers, and strangers had to step up with very little the way of thanks or even acknowledgment, and kids had to grow up without their parents. There would have been little communication and tonnes to worry about and it seems like such an act of grace in the middle of a literal war. So despite the film’s shortcomings, I still appreciated a window on this particular view, and what a lovely view it was, with lots of sights to behold.
In 1944, a team of five allied soldiers are assigned to protect a French mansion that the Nazis recently vacated. They are late arriving to relieve the current watch, who are suspiciously eager to leave. Almost immediately after they do, weird things begin happening to each of the five as they split up and check out the mansion. Clearly, this house is haunted, and it’s no surprise since the Nazis seem to have ritual-killed the family who once lived there (the pentagram in the attic is not just decorative, it’s fully operational).
From the moment Billy Zane appears on screen, it is clear that Ghosts of War is not going to be a good movie, and is not even trying to be one. Its goal appears to be to make you jump in terror, with it settling for mild twitches of surprise. Which kind of works, in its way. The house is mysterious enough to keep your attention, and the weird things happening within are clearly not random. These patterns hint that there is a solution to be found somewhere in the house, and our five soldiers are focused on figuring it out.
But then, things go sideways in a hurry, and that is because Ghosts of War has one other secret goal, ripped directly from M. Night Shyamalan’s playbook. Namely, to blow your mind when the truth behind these strange events is revealed. And as in most Shyamalan films, Ghosts of War’s twist feels like a cheap gimmick. Not only does his particular twist make no sense, the movie would have been better if it had just been left out.
That ill-conceived twist turns this uniquely-set haunted house movie into something we have seen done many times before, and seen done better just as many times. Especially because Ghosts of War’s ending seems to have been misplaced, or else it disappeared into thin air. Where did it go? Perhaps Billy Zane can track it down, but until he does, what’s left is a movie that is both a half hour too long and 20 minutes too short.
When the Americans were finally self-interested enough to join WW2, they needed a lot of boots on the ground, and some in the air, and a few if by sea.
Captain Krause (Tom Hanks) is in command of an escort force protecting an Atlantic convoy consisting of 37 Allied ships on their way to Liverpool. They’re passing through the Mid-Atlantic gap, so called because no antisubmarine aircraft are able to reach them. They’re on their own. Still three days out of range from protective air cover, they intercept German transmissions. It is likely U-boats are near. This is merely the start of 13 back to back covers (or 52 hours) on the Greyhound’s bridge as Krause fights to save his ship, protect those in his convoy, and rescue those who succumb.
As a war movie, director Aaron Schneider makes very effective use of his 90 minute runtime, keeping the focus on a very intense combat. It’s basically a race against time, a fight for survival until they reach precious, essential air cover once again.
But the reason Greyhound really shines, as did its source material, The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester, is in its fascinating and intricate character study of the man behind the wheel. Captain Krause has been a career Navy officer for many years. His seniority is unquestionable, but in truth, this is his first wartime mission. The other captains are younger and junior to him in rank, but they’ve been at war for two years already. Although we see him act in competent and level-headed ways, we are also privy to his self-doubt. The combat is relentless as the minutes and hours tick by, Krause unwilling to leave his post, and only the kindness of a mess attendant (Rob Morgan) ensures he doesn’t go hungry.
Hanks adapted the material himself, and though we never see the guy make an acting misstep, he is clearly suited to this character, slipping on the captain’s skin as if it were a comfortable, monogrammed slipper. You feel his fatigue, and inklings of inferiority, but with the weight and fate of an entire fleet on his shoulders, he never gives less than his best. The constant danger is exhausting, the many snap judgments that must be made while in command are overwhelming, and above all, we see Krause struggle with his conscience – muttered prayers for the souls on board, but also a refusal to celebrate enemy kills, a necessary part of war perhaps, but one with which Krause is not entirely comfortable. It’s a facet rarely explored in war movies and Hanks is up for its portrayal, but cleverly, the points are merely plotted, the lines themselves drawn by the audience.
I expect nothing less that complete satisfaction from the material Hanks is choosing, and he’s so unvaryingly good it’d be almost tedious if it wasn’t so wonderful. And this, too, is wonderful, and not even annoyingly so. Hanks truly is a master and Forester’s carefully observed novel cannot be over-rated.
In northern Afghanistan circa 2006, the Americans had a series of outposts to promote counterinsurgency and “connect with locals”. Camp Keating was nestled in a valley surrounded by Hindu Kush mountains in an attempt to stop the flow of weapons and Taliban fighters from nearby Pakistan.
The camp is an exhausting place to be with near constant firefight. It’s also nearly indefensible, and what personnel survive quickly burn out. But this movie primarily covers the Battle of Kamdesh of October 3, 2009, one of the bloodiest for US forces in the war in Afghanistan. They were assaulted by hundreds of Taliban insurgents who breached the bases’s perimeter defenses in just 48 minutes and lit the outpost on fire. There had been a systematic failure to adequately support the base, but the the troops on the ground repulsed the attack “with conspicuous gallantry, courage and bravery.” Due to a lack of available aircraft and density of terrain, help was slow to reach them – most didn’t arrive until after the 14 hour battle was over. The small contingent of American troops lost 8 soldiers that day, with 27 more wounded; those that survived did so thanks to bombers arriving to coordinate airstrike.
If you like war movies, this one is well-made. If you’re prone to migraines, this one’s constant gunfire makes it a major trigger. Once the battle starts, it’s unrelenting, and it wasn’t exactly easy going before that either. The intensity is real, and the realism is ugly.
The movie thinks that SSG Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood) is our hero, but he’s just the guy who wrote the book. Caleb Landry Jones, the much much better actor, as SPC Ty Carter, is the guy you can’t take your eyes off of. I dare you to try. Aside from Jones, I won’t say the acting impressed me much. The lesser roles are sprinkled with real-life soldiers, but they aren’t shouldering enough to ruin anything. It’s the Hollywood royalty who’s mucking things up, and I don’t just mean Scott Eastwood, though I definitely do put him first on my list. A smolder is not enough, Scott. A famous dad apparently is, and he clearly shares a tendency toward a certain kind of film as his old man. Milo Gibson is of course Mel’s son. James Jagger belongs to Mick. Will Attenborough is the grandson of Richard. Scott Alda Coffey is grandson to Alan Alda. And of course Orlando Bloom is Mr. Katy Perry. No one need win a role by merit here!
The unit from Combat Outpost Keating became the most decorated, though I doubt that’s much comfort: 27 soldiers were awarded the Purple Heart for wounds sustained in combat, 37 were awarded the Army Commendation Medal with “V” for valor, 3 soldiers were awarded the Bronze Star Medal, and 18 others the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for valor. Nine soldiers were awarded the Silver Star for valor. Two were later upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross. The Outpost is a fitting tribute to the kind of hard work and heroism that earn those medals. For me, it was too much. It was non-stop violence while I felt no emotional connection to any of the characters. But I’m confident that fans of the genre will find a lot to like here – a stunning, expertly and respectfully made modern war movie.
Retired Master Sergeant Thomas Tully (William Hurt) picks a bad day to visit Scott (Sebastian Stan) at his office. Scott’s boss has just quit unexpectedly, and with an election looming, it’s likely that Scott will soon be out of a job. So yes, Scott’s been shuffling Tully’s paperwork around on his desk for months now, but today wasn’t super ideal in terms of bringing it to his attention. Tully gets the brush off, has been getting it in some form or another for more than 30 years.
Tully fought in the Vietnam war, and he’s asking for a decorations review, an upgrade from the Cross to a Medal of Honor, not for himself, but for a comrade who didn’t come back, a young man named Pitsenbarger, known as Pits. On a particularly bloody day of the war, Operation Abilene, one company was used pretty much as bait, and before the sun set they’d taken 80% casualties all on that single day. And the only reason the other 20% survived was because of Pits, a man who didn’t need to be there, and wasn’t part of the operation. He was Air Force, part of pararescue. He and his unit were hovering in their helicopter trying to evacuate soldiers when he assessed the situation and acted. He went down. We went down because the company had already lost their medic and were taking an awful lot of fire. There were wounded everywhere. It was a miracle that he survived the descent, but what he did on land was even more remarkable.
Except his actions had only posthumously been awarded a Cross when the grateful survivors had put him up for an MOH. They were still pursuing it this many years later, hoping to commemorate all he had done for men he didn’t even know.
Scott’s in a tricky position career-wise and gets sent to check out this story. He interviews the survivors, many of them reluctant, all of them haunted (including Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, and Ed Harris). And he visits the Pitsenbarger family, finding parents (Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd) still grieving their son. This assignment may have started as a way to run out the clock on his former position, but as he begins to comprehend the black hole of bureaucracy that this simple request has suffered, he becomes more committed to seeing in through. It’s about more than acknowledging the sacrifice made by The Pitsenbarger family, it’s a balm on the psychic wounds of the people he saved. The Vietnam war in particular offered so little to its returning vets that this was really their last avenue for healing their emotional scars.
Writer-director Todd Robinson’s film is earnest, safe, and sensitive. It’s also true. It very carefully toes the tricky path of celebrating the contributions of those who served without condoning the war itself. But more than that, it serves as a reminder of a war that may have fallen away from public consciousness but is still serving aftershocks to those who narrowly survived and to the families of those who did not.
Let’s be real: this documentary is a super duper emotional watch.
We’re going to get to know the Eisch family over the next decade of their lives, but when we meet them, dad Brian is deployed to Afghanistan while sons Isaac, 12, and Joey, 7, live with uncle Shawn since their mother is out of the picture. The kids are proud of their dad, they think of him as a super hero, but they not only miss him, they worry about him. They’re young but they understand the consequences of his job.
In fact, Brian does return injured. He nearly lost his leg, so the dad they get back is not the same one that left them. He can’t do the camping and fishing and outdoorsy stuff that they used to enjoy together, but he’s also struggling just to be a loving and attentive father. War sucks.
Brian is lucky; besides having some very helpful relatives, he finds love again, a saintly and patient woman who’s willing to abide his mood swings and care for his children as she cares for her own. Brian’s pain is such that he finally agrees to an amputation, but healing post-surgery isn’t as swift as he’d hoped and his prosthetic the answer to all his problems. As depression sets in, a war video game becomes his sole focus. Brian is grappling with his new limitations and his sons are adapting to a family constantly reacting to the aftershocks of war.
Directors Catrin Einhorn and Lesley Davis capture some truly stunning and intimate family moments. Brian of course goes through some major transformations mentally and physically, but I found the young sons to be much more compelling. And remember: we’re with them for an entire decade. We literally watch them grow up, something they perhaps do a little too quickly. Juvenile ideals of patriotism and valour melt into questioning the real cost of war and whether it’s really worth it. As hard as it is to hear a 7 year old say “You shot my dad, I kill you,” it’s even harder to watch him learn the true meaning of sacrifice.
The Eisch home matches their wardrobe completely: plaid and American flags adorn both. Brian coaches his sons to “be tough” and to hold back their tears. Meanwhile, he’s wrestling with his own sense of masculinity, purpose, and self-determination. He’s a third generation soldier who’s no longer mission ready. Is the fourth generation destined to walk in his boots, or has this family paid enough?
This family portrait is painted with generational tragedy but it’s not asking for sympathy. It’s serving real, raw moments of joy and sorrow and we are their solemn witness.
“Just because you’re the prime minister doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts.” It’s almost delicious how naive this sounds as Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) utters the words unironically near the top of the film. This was in 2003. We, of course, that politicians were shady. That they lied routinely and weren’t even ashamed of it. But in 2003, things began to shift, in part because thanks to the internet, we had ready access facts and figures. So when a politician looked into our eyes (through television, but still) and said the words “weapons of mass destruction,” we called bullshit. With time we’ve been able to say that the war on Iraq was never about 9-11, or Sadam, or nuclear capabilities. It was about oil. It was always about oil. That was the beginning of the end; it’s been all downhill from there, rolling ever more swiftly from 2016 on when America’s T-bag president has us living in a post-truth, fake news apocalypse.
But let’s go back to 2003. After the tragic September 11 2001 terrorist attack, America mourned their 3000 lost, but then skipped through the other stages of grief and went straight to vengeance. The al-Qaeda terrorists were not from Iraq (they were from Saudi Arabia, primarily) but linking the invasion of Iraq to the tragedy provided convenient cover for America’s true intentions: control over oil and preservation of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. UK prime minister Tony Blair decided to cast his lot with George W., though he found it difficult to justify in the House of Commons where a record-high number of MPs rebelled against the vote and 3 resigned in protest. Still, they joined what was already an unpopular war with suspicious rationales. Katharine Gun (Knightley) was but one of many people glued to their televisions, skeptical of the reasoning they were being sold.
Gun worked as a translator for a British intelligence agency. She’d seen memos concerning a request from the U.S. for any kind of compromising information on diplomats from the UN Security Council who were due to vote on the prospective invasion, and for help in bugging their offices.
Outraged at their under-handedness, Katharine leaked the document which ultimately led to her arrest and being charged with breaking of Official Secrets Act. The movie is nothing new, and if anything it lacks punch since with hindsight we know that not only was Hussein not affiliated with al-Qaeda, no WMDs were ever found in Iraq. The war was a sham. The reason to watch is for Knightley, who reminds us that ordinary people can be promoted to hero or demoted to villain when they turn whistleblower. Director Gavin Hood’s success is that he doesn’t make Gun a martyr, he doesn’t make her soap-boxy or righteous. She’s just a citizen like you or I, frustrated by her government’s dishonesty, and when she has the ability to do something, she does it. She’s not brave or courageous. It reminds me of a quote from Spider-man: Into The Spider-Verse (random much?) (bear with me): “Anyone can wear the mask.” In early 2003, Katharine wore the mask.
Why watch the movie when we’re already familiar with the events? For me it was the court scene. Gun plead “not guilty”, saying in her defense that she acted to prevent imminent loss of life in a war she considered illegal. What happens next is eyebrow-arching stuff, almost too good, too perfect to be true (but it is).