The Foreigner

Directed by Martin Campbell who is best known for the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, The Foreigner is a fairly typical yet entertaining action thriller significant for the dramatic acting performance given by the usually funny martial arts superstar Jackie Chan. The aging Chan plays Ngoc Minh Quan, a hard-working Chinese restaurant owner in London whose beloved teenage daughter Fan is killed in a bombing claimed by a group of terrorists sympathetic to the anti-British IRA movement in Ireland and Northern Ireland. After his wife and other children were murdered as they migrated to England years ago, the death of his only remaining family member sets Quan on a path to find those responsible and enact revenge. He approaches the Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy, played by a dramatic Pierce Brosnan, who Quan believes knows the perpetrators. Hennessey is suspicious because he was once a powerful figure in the IRA who still has connections with active members despite his apparent allegience to the United Kingdom. Chan’s character rapidly escalates his anger at Hennessy by bombing his office in Belfast and systematically terrorizing him at his farmhouse. Throughout the entire conflict, Hennessy claims he has no knowledge about the bombing in London and actually investigates it himself to see if any of his former IRA associates were involved. As he tries to find the culprits and smooth over relations with the central British government, Hennessy tasks his bodyguards, including his ruthless nephew Sean, with hunting down Quan who we learn has a particular set of skills as a former Special Ops trained by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Towards the end of the movie, things get more complicated with surprising twists on who was really involved in the London bombing. As with any other Jackie Chan film, there are several well choreographed fight sequences in which Jackie Chan uses his martial arts skills to the fullest. However, I was surprised by the relatively few scenes involving Jackie Chan; the promotional material gives the impression that his character would be the central focus and that Pierce Brosnan’s character would be less of a major character. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable but fairly formulaic action thriller whose strengths include the dramatic turn of Jackie Chan and the uniquely fresh take on the IRA.

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Blade Runner 2049

Directed by Denis Villeneuve who is best known for the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 is an extraordinary film that lives up to its predecessor, the science fiction cult classic Blade Runner released in 1982 and based on a 1968 Philip K. Dick novel. Heavily influenced by the first movie’s director Ridley Scott who is one of the producers of the sequel, the film remarkably recreates the dystopian hallmarks of the original with beautiful cinematography of a bleak yet futuristic world of monolithic skyscrapers illuminated by extravagant neon signage rising above a rain-soaked suffering population. The story takes place thirty years after the first Blade Runner and follows an officer with the LAPD officer named K, played by Ryan Gosling, who is sent on a secret mission by his boss Lieutenant Joshi, played by Robin Wright, to discover the truth behind the discovery of a mysterious skeleton. K is what is known as a blade runner whose job it is is to hunt down and destroy renegade replicants, human-like robots originally created by the now defunct Tyrell Corporation featured in the original. Officer K is a replicant himself but of a more advanced and better controlled version built by the all-powerful Wallace Corporation led by the vicious Niander Wallace, played by the especially creepy Jared Leto. The Wallace Corporation is intrigued by the LAPD’s investigation because it may lead to a key development in their replicant program. Throughout the slow burn and sometimes complex esoteric scenes, K questions his own existence and whether he is in fact a human and not a replicant with implanted memories. The very nature of what it means to be human is the core of the film’s deep dive into the philosophical exploration of humanity and artificial intelligence. Eventually, Gosling’s character comes to a greater understanding of who he is after encountering Rick Deckard, the main character from the original played by a particularly gruff Harrison Ford. Deckard is a replicant who has been on the run over the past thirty years and had a romantic relationship with another replicant named Rachael who may have had a very unique capability desired by Wallace. Overall, although the heavy dose of sci-fi and philosophical elements may not appeal to all viewers, the movie is without a doubt a cinematic masterpiece as a result of being a visual marvel presenting a stylized dystopia complete with a very futuristic-sounding soundtrack emphasizing the dark and moody themes. If you are a fan of the original Blade Runner or any other sci-fi flick, you will not be disappointed by this long-awaited sequel. 

American Assassin

Based on the 2010 novel of the same name written by Vince Flynn, American Assassin is a mediocre spy thriller that follows a fairly formulaic plot line and does not contribute much to the genre. Played by the young actor Dylan O’Brien best known for his role in 2014’s The Maze Runner, Mitch Rapp is living a normal happy life until he and his girlfriend vacation in Ibiza, Spain during a terrorist attack in which many tourists, including his beautiful girlfriend, are killed. After this traumatic incident, he goes on a quest to infiltrate the Islamic terrorist organization responsible for the attack in hopes of enacting some sort of vengeance. As he is about to meet the leader of the cell in Libya, U.S. Special Forces ambush and take Mitch into custody to ascertain his involvement. Eventually, he is recruited into a secretive black ops unit known as Orion run by the unconventional former Naval Seal Stan Hurley, played by Michael Keaton. Mitch’s first mission is to intercept a nuclear device missing from Russia that is be purchased from the radical faction of the Iranian government in order to make a nuclear weapon. However, the team is unexpectedly faced with a former member of Orion who is now a dangerous mercenary helping the Iranians retrieve the weapon. Played by Taylor Kitsch who is best known for the 2012 box office flop John Carter, this mercenary known as Ghost takes Hurley hostage in Rome where he also takes possession of the now fully-working nuclear weapon in order to attack the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet. Overall, I was expecting a better spy thriller but came away sorely disappointed because the story seemed contrived and unoriginal. 

Dunkirk

Written and directed by the acclaimed Christopher Nolan who is best known for 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2010’s Inception, Dunkirk is a top-notch war movie crafted by Nolan at his finest and joints the ranks of the greatest war films, including Steven Spielberg’s 1998 modern classic Saving Private Ryan. The remarkable true story chronicles one of the most pivotal moments of World War II: the British surrender and massive evacuation at Dunkirk, France beginning in late May and ending in early June of 1940. Up to 400,000 mostly British soldiers representing almost the entirety of the British military were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk with no real way of crossing the English Channel and reaching home even though it was within sight across the shore. With outstanding cinematography, greatly enhanced by the all-encompassing IMAX 70mm format, the film uses spectacular and often horrifying imagery to follow all the major aspects of the massive operation led by the British Commander Bolton, played by the Oscar-nominated actor Kenneth Branagh. The wide sweeping shots of the thousands upon thousands of war-weary soldiers waiting to be rescued while being constantly bombarded by the German air force reinforce the unbelievable scope of the evacuation. There are also mesmerizing dogfighting sequences between the strained British Royal Air Force, represented by a particularly heroic pilot played by Tom Hardy, and German warplanes and bombers targeting the vulnerable British troops. Further underscoring the horrors of war and the difficulty of evacuating so many men are the scenes showing jubilant soldiers finally getting on British Naval vessels after surviving the battle, only to be killed after many of their ships are torpedoed or bombed by the Germans. Throughout the film, Nolan is able to effectively recreate what it must have been like at Dunkirk and thereby engenders an anxiety-inducing cinematic experience. The visceral reaction is not only created by the stunning visuals but also by the simple yet effectual soundtrack, which is mostly composed of what sounds like a ticking clock to heighten the nerve-wracking situations the characters are facing. Besides speaking to the hell that is war, the film also presents the hopeful and inspirational aspect of the evacuation of Dunkirk: the massive flotilla of ordinary Brits using their fishing and pleasure boats who journey to Dunkirk in the face of danger to help evacuate the many thousands of soldiers and bring them back home safely. To develop a personal connection with these unlikely heroes, the film also follows a father, played by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance, and son and a local teenager as they venture their way on their civilian boat to pick up survivors from Dunkirk. They themselves face the harsh reality of warfare when they rescue a severely shell-shocked soldier, played by the Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who is adamant that he must not return to Dunkirk. Overall, I found it to be one of the more engrossing and emotionally powerful depictions of war and was nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece from the auteur filmmaker Christopher Nolan. His remarkable attention to detail and beautiful cinematography is probably the closest a filmgoer can get to experiencing war, both the horrific and inspirational qualities. The uplifting moments appeal to what many Brits still affectionately refer to as the Dunkirk spirit, the forces for good during times of adversity.

Churchill

Based on the true story of one of the most pivotal moments in Winston Churchill’s life, Churchill tells a fascinating chapter of World War II history and is marked by a terrific acting performance from Brian Cox, but the movie’s impact ultimately falls short and feels more like a low budget TV movie. The film follows the larger-than-life British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, played by the great Scottish actor Brian Cox, during the lead up to the massive invasion of Normandy, France on D-Day. We witness the pivotal days before June 6, 1944 through the eyes of the war-weary Churchill who is opposed to the plan because it reminds him of his fateful decision during World War I at the Battle of Gallipoli that led to thousands of Allied deaths and an embarrassing defeat. The stubborn and strong-willed political leader butts heads with the military leaders, including the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower who is played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame, and British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. For such dramatic decision-making that turns the tide of the war, the movie never really builds up enough tension and is hampered by the stilted performances of the supporting cast. Much of the film wallows in the despair of Churchill who, at times, is unresponsive and must be encouraged by his emotional backbone, his wife Clementine Churchill who is played by Miranda Richardson. I was most fascinated by the deep depression that Churchill experienced and his resistance to such a bold action as D-Day, both surprising aspects for a great leader famous for his power and resiliency. Overall, I was disappointed by the less-than-stellar and oftentimes convoluted writing and narrative structure of the movie, which had so much potential. The remarkable story of an unexplored area of such a consequential man as Winston Churchill and his role during World War II deserved a better cinematic treatment.

The Wall

Directed by Doug Liman who directed 2002’s The Bourne Identity and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, The Wall is a gritty psychological war thriller about two American soldiers ambushed and trapped by a mysterious sniper while on a mission by themselves in the Iraqi desert shortly after the Iraq War. Sniper and U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews, played by professional wrestler John Cena, and his spotter Sergeant Allen Isaac, played by Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson, are on a relatively simple scouting operation but are unexpectedly shot at by an unseen sniper while waiting for extraction. Matthews is critically wounded out in the open and Isaac tries to rescue him but is forced to hide behind a crumbling wall after another barrage of sniper fire. Himself slightly injured, Isaac is unable to radio headquarters because their long-distance radio is damaged, but all of a sudden a mysterious voice appears on the two-way radio. Isaac soon learns that the man is an infamous Iraqi civilian sniper nicknamed Juba and is the one who has been shooting at them. With the wall as his only protection, Isaac desperately tries to find Juba’s location while dealing with dehydration and his bleeding leg wound. He becomes increasingly frustrated because Juba continues to try to engage in strangely friendly conversation about Isaac’s life and how the American military is destroying his country. At the end of the movie, it appears Isaac and the now slightly conscious Matthews have a chance to survive, but Juba may still have the upper hand. For a war movie, there are surprisingly few action sequences, and it resembles more of a intimate psychological thriller between two adversaries, Isaac and Juba, in a life-or-death situation. The film reminds me of another movie that I saw recently, 2016’s Mine in which the protagonist is by himself but is trapped by stepping on a landmine and also must deal with the psychological issues of dying in combat alone. Overall, I thought the filmmaker did a good job of presenting a psychological thriller, but the film never fully rises to its potential and is primarily remarkable only for its unique context and wartime setting. 

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Written and directed by acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is a terrifically well-crafted film about a scheming small-time fixer in New York City; Richard Gere’s devastating performance is what makes the film truly great. When we first meet Norman Oppenheimer, played by Richard Gere in one of his greatest roles, he is down on his luck and is desperate for any business connection and willing to do almost anything to be a well-respected fixer. Like we do not know much about his personal history, what he actually does as a fixer and how he makes money is never very clear in the movie. Many people he encounters who recognize him actively avoid him, including Dan Stevens’ character who is given a business deal while jogging in Central Park and must literally run away from Norman. Eventually, he befriends the minor Israeli politician Eshel, played by Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi, and buys him a very expensive pair of shoes. The movie fast-forwards three years when Eshel rises to power in Israeli politics and becomes the prime minister of Israel. Norman, who still has not been very successful as a fixer, tries to cultivate this relationship with such a powerful man as Eshel but to no avail because he is never allowed to communicate with him. At the same time, Norman plays up his relationship and finds himself entangled in a whole set of deals with those who previously ignored him, including his quasi-friend played by Michael Sheen and his rabbi desperate for funds to keep the synagogue and played by Steve Buscemi. Acting out like a Shakespearean tragedy or a Woody Allen film, Norman’s life begins to rapidly unravel and is scapegoated by a hesitant Eshel who is being investigated for corruption. The best part of the film is Richard Gere’s nuanced performance as a desperate man who comes off as a scheming and not skillful fixer. Overall, I enjoyed the well-timed pacing and elaborate writing that made the movie feel more like a dramatic play, complete with a star-studded cast and the superb Richard Gere.