Finding Oscar

Produced by Steven Spielberg, Finding Oscar is a riveting and shocking documentary about one of the largest massacres during the 36 year-long Guatemalan Civil War. Under the de facto military president, an elite group of soldiers tasked with eliminating guerrilla fighters entered the small rural village Dos Erres in December 1982 allegedly to flush out the anti-government fighters supposedly hiding in the village. What unfolded was the killing of over two hundred innocent men, women, and children who were beaten to death and thrown into a local well. Only two young boys survived, and they were taken by two soldiers to become members of their family. The film follows the contemporary forensic anthropologists who went through the victim’s skeletal remains to uncover the truth that the Guatemalan military was responsible for the massacre. In hopes of gathering more details and an eyewitness account of that day, a group of activists search the world for the two surviving boys, especially a boy named Oscar who was particularly hard to find. Through the accounts of the forensic anthropologists, activists, lawyers, some of the soldiers that committed the atrocities, and surviving family members, we learn about a war that many in the United States are unaware of and the unheard of war crimes, including the estimated 200,000 dead civilians and this particularly horrific massacre. More disturbing is the fact that the United States government and President Ronald Reagan supported the Guatemalan regime and had friendly meetings with the very president who ordered the massacre around the same time. Overall, I found it to be a terrific documentary that highlights a atrociously bloody war that took place in our hemisphere yet most Americans know nothing about; this powerful film provides a much-needed history lesson about Guatemala and the questionable dealings of the United States had with the regimes during the Civil War.

John Wick: Chapter 2

Following the surprise success of the original John Wick released in 2014, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a terrifically fun and slick action thriller that puts most sequels to shame because it is equally good if not better than the original. In a continuation of his rebirth as an action star since his breakout role of Neo in The Matrix films, Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, a particularly skilled assassin rightfully nicknamed The Boogeyman, who is forced out of retirement still dealing with his wife’s death several years prior. He is part of an international underground society of assassins known as The Continental and is bound to one more assignment by a blood oath to a high-ranking Italian gangster. The assassination that he is tasked with takes him to Rome where his impressive fighting skills are used to dispatch an army of bodyguards, including a particularly brutal assassin played by Common. Eventually, the tables are turned on Wick, and he spends the rest of the movie evading a trove of Continental members across Rome and back in New York City. Almost perfectly typecasting the famously subdued Reeves, Wick has very little dialogue and fights and kills with Zen-like precision even as he suffers bloody injuries. Already reminiscent of The Matrix with its highly choreographed martial arts fighting sequences, the film reunites Keanu Reeves with Laurence Fishburne who, like Morpheus in The Matrix series, plays a philosophizing leader of the criminal underground. I particularly enjoyed the absurdly out-of-place old-fashioned formalities of The Continental headquartered at classically luxurious hotels in which the prim and proper concierge arranges services for well-dressed assassins. Furthermore, the leader of the New York branch who acts more as a hotel manager, named Winston and portrayed by Ian McShane, runs a tight ship and ensures that no business is conducted on the premises at the risk of a member’s execution or excommunication. Overall, I found the movie to be a stylish and inventive take on the increasingly stale action genre and takes the audience on a thoroughly entertaining joyride.

Inferno

Based on the novel written by Dan Brown in 2013, Inferno is an average mystery thriller that is largely a retread of the previous Ron Howard productions of the Robert Langdon series. Like the previous adaptations of The Da Vinci Code in 2006 and Angels and Demons in 2009, the film stars Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon, the renowned fictional Harvard professor of symbology who finds himself entangled in yet another international conspiracy. We first find Professor Langdon waking up in a hospital in Florence, Italy and suffering from short-term memory loss as a result of a mysterious head injury. With the assistance of a British expat working as an emergency room doctor, portrayed by Felicity Jones, he gradually remembers details of the past 48 hours and is forced to embark on a wild goose chase to prevent a sinister plot from unfolding. While experiencing vivid nightmarish visions, he uses his vast knowledge of ancient symbols to decrypt a series of clues hidden in famous museum artifacts throughout Florence. As the title suggests, many of the mysteries are somehow connected to the 14th century Florentine poet Dante Alighieri and his famous work The Divine Comedy and its first part known as Inferno, which gave us our modern understanding of hell. Professor Langdon discovers that there is an eccentric billionaire named Zobrist who hatches a plan to solve overpopulation by secretly creating a disease to kill off half of the world’s population. Much of the film has a frenetic and fast-paced feel that sometimes too quickly jumps from one clue to the next across increasingly exotic locations throughout Europe. The real problem with the movie is that much of it is too cryptic, making it hard to digest all the details crammed into two hours. Also, unfortunately, much of the action is too preposterous and convoluted to take seriously. It is a film that is really more of the same and already has been done more adequately in the prior installments. Overall, it is a movie better suited to readers of Dan Brown’s novels and casual fans of frivolous mystery thrillers. The redundant cliches that we have already seen led me to believe that it was simply made as a cash cow for the studio, desperate for another Brown-Howard-Hanks blockbuster co-production.

American Pastoral

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel published in 1997 by acclaimed author Philip Roth, American Pastoral tells a fascinating story that, unfortunately, does not live up to its evocative subject matter by being mired in too many complexities. The film is the directorial debut of Ewan McGregor who also plays the main protagonist Seymour “Swede” Levov, a former high school star athlete turned successful businessman whose life is turned upside down after the radicalization of his daughter. Set in 1960s New Jersey, he lives a relatively normal life in small-town America with his beautiful former beauty pageant wife, portrayed by Jennifer Connelly, and runs his father’s glove-making business in Newark. Nothing seems wrong with his daughter except for a persistent stutter, but things radically change as she becomes a teenager. She quickly develops an extremely liberal political consciousness and rails against the Vietnam War and racial injustice. Depicted by former child actress Dakota Fanning, the daughter Merry is much more than a typically rebellious teenager after she mysteriously disappears and is implicated in the bombing of a local post office. Interspersed with archival footage of race riots and violence perpetrated by radical groups such as the Weather Underground, the movie rather haphazardly attempts to touch upon every civil rights issue of such a turbulent time as the 1960s. It also wants to show the profoundly devastating effects that having a possibly criminal child has on a family. The whole situation is particularly upsetting for Seymour, a good-natured and responsible father who believed he raised his child the right way. McGregor does give a fairly good performance as a grief-stricken father searching for answers and the whereabouts of his beloved yet troubled daughter. Overall, the film misses the mark by squeezing way too many details and storylines to make it a cohesive and even coherent cinematic exploration of important matters on life and societal ills. It had the potential of being a movie powerfully evoking the zeitgeist of the 1960s but largely fell short possibly due to the rookie directorial mistakes of the otherwise talented actor Ewan McGregor.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Based on a long-running series of novels written by the British author Lee Child, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a rather uninspired crime thriller filled with so many cliches that is hard to keep count. Even though it features the international superstar Tom Cruise, the film feels more like a B-movie, more in line with a Steven Segal or Chuck Norris production. It is a formulaic sequel to 2012’s Jack Reacher in which Cruise reprises the role of Jack Reacher, a recently retired major in the United States Army Military Police who remains on the hunt for criminals. The movie follows Reacher as he tries to uncover the truth surrounding the false accusation that a top commanding officer is a spy. There is an element of a love interest between Reacher and the officer who happens to be a beautiful young woman played by Cobie Smulders. Eventually, he stumbles upon an international conspiracy involving a large defense contractor for the United States military and its possible shady dealings. While running on a wild goose chase, Reacher must also protect a troubled teenage girl who is supposedly his daughter that he did not know he had with an unknown girlfriend from many years ago. Like any other action flick, it contains many fairly average gun battles, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat sequences. Overall, I found it to be an unoriginal and unstimulating average or even below-average action thriller that does not contribute much to the genre except simply providing Hollywood another Tom Cruise blockbuster. Befitting the title itself, the movie proves that it is a sequel that one should never go back to, unless you are an avid fan of Tom Cruise or stereotypical action films. 

The Accountant

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The Accountant is an entertaining action thriller that is noteworthy because of Ben Affleck’s performance and the unique twist of having the gun-toting protagonist autistic. The film starts when Affleck’s character, who later goes by the alias Christian Wolff, is a child suffering from severe autism whose parents become increasingly frustrated with his inability to act “normally.” Interspersed with flashbacks to his difficult youth with a particularly strict military father, the film follows Christian as an adult with a secretive and sinister career. Due to his proficiency with math and anti-social tendencies, he becomes an accountant illegally cooking the books for drug traffickers, terrorists, and other major criminals. Part of his cover, he takes a job as a financial consultant at a cutting-edge robotics company, hired to discover a large mysterious loss of money. With the aid of the company’s internal accountant played by Anna Kendrick, he discovers something nefarious at the company owned by John Lithgow’s character. All the while, Christian who is simply known as “The Accountant” is being pursued by the gung-ho director of financial crimes at the Treasury Department, played by J.K. Simmons. Towards the film’s conclusion, it becomes much more of an action flick after the weapons proficient Christian encounters a hitman and his highly militarized personal army. Christian is highly sought-after because of his involvement with many criminal organizations and his association with the robotics company. Overall, I found the movie to be an interesting take on the action genre, albeit a little preposterous in its premise involving an autistic criminal and assassin. I was most surprised by its seemingly accurate portrayal of people with autism, complete with the character being highly sensitive to loud noises and light. It is worthy to note that the subject matter involving autism may be controversial but the filmmakers try to present Christian’s struggles fairly and how external forces, particularly his cruel father, took advantage of him.

War Dogs

From the director of The Hangover series, War Dogs tells the fascinating true story of a pair of twenty-somethings who become arms dealers for the United States military. Returning to his hometown of Miami, Efraim Diveroli, portrayed by Jonah Hill, recruits old childhood friend David Packouz, portrayed by Miles Teller, in a new rather ill-repute yet legal business venture. With the movie being primarily from his perspective, Packouz is in a dead-end job and desperate for money at first hesitates to partner with his estranged friend. However, eventually he takes part in Diveroli’s ingenious scheme to bid on small military contracts for weapons, ammunition, and other equipment such as bulletproof vests, deals that the major defense contractors overlook. Essentially serving as middlemen, their company AEY makes them millionaires during the heyday of the Iraq War in 2006. After meeting a very shady character played by Bradley Cooper who seems to come straight out of American Hustle, they decide to hit it big time and eventually win a $300 million contract to provide weapons to Afghanistan. Diveroli playing fast and loose with the rules and laws catches up to them during the deal when they encounter unscrupulous individuals in Albania. They also face major repercussions with the United States military and government. Interestingly, the director whose claim to fame is comedies tries to make the movie entertaining with some comedic bits and an energetic soundtrack with even songs from Creedence Clearwater Revival. The tone shifts especially when the partners struggle with one another, and the film becomes more of a serious drama. Jonah Hill gives a terrific performance and at times channels his morally reprehensible and wild character from The Wolf of Wall Street. The movie itself reminded me of Nicolas Cage’s Lord of War in its depiction of arms dealers and The Wolf of Wall Street in its depiction of of a hedonistic and corrupt workplace. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining film with a serious undertone that delves into a deeply fascinating story that is truly stranger than fiction.
Backdrop

David Packouz (left) and Efraim Diveroli (right) at a Miami gun range

At the time they both got involved with AEY, the founder Diveroli was only 18 years old and Packouz was 23 years old. By the end of 2006, it is estimated they made $10.5 million off 149 Department of Defense contracts. Both men are now in their early to mid-thirties and were convicted and served time for conspiracy, fraud, and other felonies related to the Afghan arms deal. Diveroli spent 4 years in a federal prison following his 2011 conviction while Packouz spent seven months under house arrest. According to some people, they are no longer friends and are not on speaking terms. In fact, Packouz is suing his former partner over the money he never received from AEY; he claims Diveroli still has some wealth while he is on Social Security. Diveroli is currently suing the movie’s studio Warner Brothers for using his story without his permission and without being paid.