A Trip To The Movies – Review: “’71” 3.14.15

Okay I’ll just come flat-out and say it – “Jack O’Connell is the best twenty-something actor, stateside or international, that is currently working in the film industry today”. The last time I felt like I discovered an actor of his caliber was when I was first introduced to Tom Hardy (who coincidentally enough I draw a lot of comparisons between the two) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” (2008), who as I predicted, like I do with O’Connell, would be a household name in just a few years from then once American audiences started to take notice of these highly gifted young actors. Also, like Hardy, I first caught wind of O’Connell in 2013’s “Starred Up” (another prison drama like “Bronson” which I considered the best post-2000 film of the genre outside of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009) ). O’Connell puts in a breakthrough performance that rivaled that of his co-star, the immensely talented Ben Mendelsohn (who’s pretty much been the best part of everything I’ve seen him in). O’Connell was so good in that, that I vowed to myself that I would follow this very promising and undeniably gifted young actor in every project he does from this point forward. And at the young age of 24, he shows the potential to be just as good, if not better, than someone like a Tom Hardy or a Matthais Schoenaerts, but should achieve their same level of fame about a decade younger than they did, those actors being well into their thirties. O’Connell is basically still just a kid, which makes the anticipation of what he’s going to next all that more exciting. And so far, in just the past 2 years, he’s played the lead role in the aforementioned “Starred Up” (2013), last year’s Angelina Jolie directed “Unbroken” (which I still haven’t seen but that has recently moved to the very top of my queue simply because it stars O’Connell), and now this film. Which without giving away what I thought about it too prematurely, let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed by it.

‘”71″ is the new feature film by first time director Yann Demange (I could have sworn when I first read that name I thought it was a pseudonym for the “Muscles From Brussels”) starring Jack O’Connell in the lead (and in fact the only lead, as the rest of the roles I would barely even consider “supporting”). The film is set in (you guessed it) 1971 Northern Ireland and jumps right into the story without little to no setup other than that he’s a British solider who happens to be fighting for the Irish Army. After a quick orientation depicting his squad going through some rigorous training, it jumps right into his specific unit being briefed that they’re being deployed to a dangerous area of Belfast, where an ongoing war is taking place between 2 rival religious factions – the Protestants and Catholics. In one of the more well shot and gripping segments of the film, O’Connell’s unit lands in a war-torn area of Catholic territory, and since the Army is more aligned with the Protestants, to say the townspeople don’t take to their presence well would be a grave understatement. In fact, a full on riot ensues, which is expertly shot using a guerilla-style filmmaking style that makes you feel like you’re right there in on the action. O’Connell’s character, amidst the chaos, gets separated from the rest of his unit, and since his squad is being overpowered by the Catholics, they leave in a hurried rush without him with members of the Catholic militia on his trail (and a chase scene as good as anything I can remember on film since the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze bank robbery foot chase from “Point Break” (1991) ). The rest of the film plays out like a game of cat and mouse where O’Connell’s character, who starts off as the hunter, now becomes the hunted, as just about every character within the film seems to want him dead. The rest of the film takes several twists and turns, which takes a hold of you in its firm grip and doesn’t let go until the film’s closing shot

This was a mightily impressive debut from director Yann Damange and yet another brilliant performance by O’Connell, who seems to be in just about every frame of the film and who is clearly the meat and bones of the picture. The film itself is gripping, taut, and engaging from start to finish, and has an incredible sense of pacing. One thing that stood out to me was that while I went into it thinking I was going to be watching a War film. It rather deftly combined other elements into it that made it an equal parts thriller, political espionage cat and mouse game evoking the works of writer John le Carre, historical drama (1969’s “Z” and 2005’s “Munich” acting as reference points throughout the film), as well as a crime film (my fellow movie companion said it felt a bit like David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). Which I didn’t get at first but when he started to explain the levels of corruption by all members of society, I could see why he drew the comparison and understood how he could tie it in. The camerawork was also stunning, and shot in a style reminiscent of the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) which made it feel authentically real. The only few very minor criticisms I had of the piece was that they didn’t really provide much back story into O’Connell’s character. That and I found many of the interlocking characters from the different facets of society a bit difficult to follow. Kind of how I feel about Asian films depicting the Yakuza – certain characters are difficult to tell apart as many of them appear similarly. Lastly, I think the film could have been expanded on and went further into its story which seemed to go across by quickly at a rather brisk 99 minutes. Those few minor criticisms aside though, this was a well acted, thoroughly engaging, and gripping meta-film about a time and place in history that prior going into the film, I knew little to next to nothing about. And in summation, it was only the second film I’ve seen this year outside of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” that I was so engaged in that I didn’t take a bathroom break because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing even a second of this well constructed and incredibly tense film. That had me on the edge of my seat from its start to its nicely poetic and emotional finish.

[B+]

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Review – ‘Lone Survivor’ 10.19.14

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Peter Berg hasn’t made a good film since 1998 with his groundbreaking, twisted, and dementedly hilarious “Very Bad Things”. Since then he has gone on to direct quite a few flops starting with 2003’s “The Rundown”, then 2008’s “Hancock”, only to hit rock bottom when he directed 2012’s “Battleship”. Which at that point I almost dismissed him from my directors whose movies I’d watch list. He seems to be like a not as well known, watered down Michael Bay, strictly in terms of the kinds of films that he usually makes. Big budget Hollywood popcorn fare summer movies. Which to me is about as low as any serious director can go. That’s why I was slightly skeptical going into this one. As Berg hasn’t done a really good film in fifteen years. That and I remember seeing it advertised at one of my local theater conglomerate chains as I passed by when it had just come out. The friend who I was with at the time asked me if I wanted to go to see it. I quickly told him “Nah I think I’ll pass. It’s got Mark Wahlberg”. Anybody who knows me well enough knows how I feel about Wahlberg. He’s a Hollywood puppet (see “Transformers 4” for further proof). Let’s say I’m usually pretty disappointed with the roles he chooses. Though after hearing from a couple of friends of mine that it was actually good, and in one case great. I figured why the hell not. After all how bad could it be?

Based on a true story. “Lone Survivor” starts out by showing us an opening montage of different units within the military and the rigorous training that they go through in order to become soldiers. Soon after, we flash forward to a injured Mark Whalberg, known as Luttrel, as he’s being shipped off in a helicopter. Jumping back 3 years, we meet a rag tag group of soliders played by Wahlberg (Luttrel), Emile Hirsch (Dietz), Ben Foster (Axe), Taylor Kitsch (Murphy – who I could have sworn was Josh Hartnett until I sifted through the cast on my phone), and finally Eric Bana (Commander Kristensen). After some setting up of the characters and giving the viewer some background into who they are as people, they’re given their objective – the killing of a Taliban leader. They then very strategically plan their mission. Only to be lifted up in helicopters to head out and be dropped off in the Afghan Mountains. After some milling about in the mountainside they are exposed and have to capture an old man and 2 kids. They have to make a decision involving the Rules of Engagement and depending on which way they decide, their mission could potentially become very compromised. They ultimately wind up making a moral decision and then retreat back up into the mountains. Then about halfway in to the film, they see their first taste of action and the hunters become the hunted. Which sets the wheels in motion for the second half of the film.

There are a lot of strong elements that I liked about the film and just a couple of not so strong ones. First things first, hats off to Peter Berg. He takes a much smaller film than from what he’s used to and somehow makes it feel bigger. While also making it look artistic unlike his other commercial Blockbuster fare that he’s been doing. His grandeur style really works well here. It’s shot impeccably with some very nice, sweeping cinematography. He gets the camera right in there with each of the soldiers using extreme close up shots that are both intimate and personal, and allow the viewer to feel like they’re in on the proceedings. Along with this, he does a great job at capturing that “band of brothers” feel and making you really care for each of the characters. Once the second half starts and things really start to get going he begins shooting in a more hyper-kinetic style which gives the action a sense of immediacy. Which I personally haven’t seen done since Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008). It also has a great score, one that sounded like it was done by the post-rock inspirational group Explosions in the Sky. Adding rich textural guitar tones which I thought lent itself well in heightening the drama. As for each of the actors, they all do serviceable enough jobs in the roles they are given. Ben Foster, at least for me, stood out just a notch above the rest. The not so strong elements, for me, was that I felt like it got a little too caught up in itself in the last quarter/30 minutes. The way in which the turn of events unfold seemed slightly implausible. Also throughout, and particularly towards the end, there seemed to be this underlying American patriotism that comes across as a bit contrived and cliched. Even more, when the credits finally do roll they add in this poetic device to try and pull at the audience’s heartstrings. Very much like last year’s film by Paul Greengrass “Captain Phillips” of which I drew quite a few comparisons to. So while I really, really liked the first 3/4’s. The last quarter just didn’t hold up as well as I was hoping it would. But I have to give credit where credit is due with this one. It’s is a well shot action-packed thrill ride that has quite a bit of heart. So for Berg’s excellent direction and a great story with believable characters that I was both engaged and moved by. I would recommend this to just about anyone. I’m glad I wound up watching it in the end. Because after all, I almost skipped it entirely. Which would have been a mistake on my part.

[B]