Movie Review ~ The Contractor

The Facts:

Synopsis: After being involuntarily discharged from the Army, James Harper joins a paramilitary organization to support his family in the only way he knows how.
Stars: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gillian Jacobs, Eddie Marsan, Florian Munteanu, Kiefer Sutherland, Nina Hoss, Amira Casar, Fares Fares, J. D. Pardo
Director: Tarik Saleh
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
ReviewThe ContractorThe Contractor?  Really?  Will they ever learn?  Here we go again with a more than decent film saddled with the most cardboard brown-colored title you can imagine, though it was filmed under one that had a little more flair.  When actors Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gillian Jacobs signed on to Tarik Saleh’s muscle-y military film, it was for a script named Violence of Action.  Still, it was not entirely descriptive or exemplary enough to set it far apart from the direct to video junk starring a washed-up fourth-billed actor from a late ‘90s cop show, but…at least it had some movement to it.  The Contractor could be any movie.

Title qualms aside, and I had to put them aside, this is a surprisingly brisk and engaging action thriller that deservedly was bumped from a wide theatrical release in favor of a streaming debut.  It doesn’t have the full-bodiness to warrant that trip to the cinema but fits nicely with the new niche carved out for starry vehicles that need a home.  Orphaned by its original studio, Paramount snapped this one up, and they’ve made a wise purchase.  While it won’t ever be high on the resume for anyone involved, it acquits itself nicely as an otherwise engaging action thriller that keeps moving and doesn’t sag under easy-to-spot oncoming twists.

Sidelined from service due to a bum knee, Special Forces Sergeant James Harper (Pine, A Wrinkle in Time) struggles to provide for his family and is watching the bills pile up.  When he meets up with old army bud Mike (Foster, The Finest Hours), who appears to be living beyond his means, he finds out about Mike’s side work running covert jobs for Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland, Flatliners).  Bringing his friend into the fold, Mike leaves out a few key details. James figures these out quickly as he’s thrown into a dangerous mission exposing shady alliances that put his life and the well-being of his wife (Jacobs, Life of the Party) and child in jeopardy.

Six years after their runaway hit Hell or High Water, Pine and Foster have skilled onscreen chemistry, making them an ideal pair.  Director Saleh doesn’t have to spend much time establishing their history because both actors play their roles so convincingly that we don’t need a lot of backstories to understand their relationship.  That takes The Contractor only so far, though, and eventually, audiences will have only the standard plot mechanics of J.P. Davis’ script to carry them forward.  It’s not that Davis hasn’t crafted a strong three-act action-thriller; it’s just that nothing you can’t see coming a mile down the road happens. 

Compelling enough to not feel like a waste of time but routine in overall execution, The Contractor is best when it’s letting Pine and Foster continue to develop their non-action dramatics.  Once the mission takes over, interest starts to wane, and you’re in overly familiar territory.  The upside? You’re likely watching it for free (or far less than usual prices) at home, so you haven’t sunk movie theater prices on the watch.

Movie Review ~ The Finest Hours

finest_hours_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.

Stars: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Eric Bana

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Walt Disney Studios used to crank out their live-action pictures with regularity, keeping the home fires burning while readying their latest animated release.  From shaggy dogs to absent-minded professors to a king of the wild frontier, from identical twins pulling a fast one on their divorced parents to a monkey’s uncle to babes in toyland, the studio cast a wide net of fantasy and more often than not put forth winning family entertainment that weren’t Oscar caliber but have managed to stand the test of time all the same.

In recent years, there’s been a revitalization of Disney focusing on live-action features. Favoring true stories of uphill battles instead of the more fantastical escapism that maybe was more necessary half a century ago, there’s a definite formula at work here and no one seems particularly interested in changing it up.  A few of these films have won me over like McFarland U.S.A. and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day but on the other side of the coin you have disappointments like The Odd Life of Timothy Green and Million Dollar Arm.

The director of the overstuffed Million Dollar Arm, Craig Gillespie, returns to cinemas with The Finest Hours, a drama in real life adventure documenting the brave rescue of a crew on a sinking oil liner by a small Coast Guard boat.  The early trailers may have given most of the movie away, but to their credit they are far more exciting than the finished product.

Coast Guard Captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, Into the Woods) barely has time to ask his commanding officer (Eric Bana, Closed Circuit) permission to marry his girlfriend (Holliday Grainger, Cinderella, Disney’s excellent 2015 offering) before he’s sent out to rescue the crew of SS Pendleton, a T-2 oil tanker headed for Boston ripped in half during a large weather system felt up and down the New England coast.  Aboard the failing ship, engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck, Interstellar) overcomes crew resistance to lead the men on a risky maneuver in hopes of buying more time as their rescue vessel draws near.

All the makings of an exciting movie…if only we could see what was actually going on.  Gillespie and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Goosebumps, Blue Jasmine, the remake of Poltergeist) set so much of the film in the whiteout conditions on land or the rain heavy visages on the open sea that audiences will wind up relying on voice recognition to figure out who’s talking and what’s happening.  It doesn’t help that in dark lighting and soaking wet almost every male in the film starts to look alike, further complicating attempts to follow the action.  And did I mention it’s in 3D? And it’s the 3D that doesn’t improve the feature in the slightest, with the only noticeable dimensional change coming during the credits.

Pine makes another bid for dramatic leading man but it’s clear he’s better suited to being the captain of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness and the upcoming Star Trek Beyond.  With so many close-ups of his mournful (and, it must be said, slightly crossed) eyes, Pine emotes enough for the entire cast which is directly countered by Affleck’s barely awake effort.  Reacting to his sinking vessel or a fallen shipmate with the gusto of Rip Van Winkle, Affleck may have been going for laid-back but winds up flat-backed, sleepwalking through most of the film.

If there’s a reason to see the movie, it’s for Grainger as Bernie’s spitfire fiancée.  Determined not to lose the man she loves so soon after they get engaged, she’s got spirit to spare whether she’s standing up to Bernie’s boss or learning the hard realities of signing up to being the wife of a Coast Guard captain.  Alas, Grainger can’t be in two places at once so every time the film shifts back to the sea we feel her absence.  Poor Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) looks absolutely miserable as Bernie’s second in command…and not just because he spends the majority of the film sopping wet.  Foster is known to go all-in with his characters but feels restrained here and it clearly makes him uncomfortable.

Based on the novel The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, the script from Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson dallies around in the first half before rushing through the climactic rescue attempt that should be the dramatic peak of the film.  In all fairness, little weight is given to anything in the film but it’s strange the scene highlighted in all of the marketing materials comes up and is over so quickly.

Those feeling nostalgic for the films made by Walt Disney back in the studio’s live-action golden days were likely looking forward to The Finest Hours.  I know because I was one of them.  So it’s a bummer to report there’s a curious lack of the adventure and magic I had hoped to find in this true life tale of a rescue against all odds on the high seas.  While there were a few beacons of light to be found, should you choose to head out to sea with Pine and the gang the hours you’ll spend in the theater won’t be the finest…they’ll be merely fine.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Program

program_ver2

Synopsis: An Irish sports journalist becomes convinced that Lance Armstrong’s performances during the Tour de France victories are fueled by banned substances. With this conviction, he starts hunting for evidence that will expose Armstrong.

Release Date:  TBD 2015

Thoughts: Boy, do people hate Lance Armstrong.  And with good reason.  The disgraced former champion cyclist famously used performance enhancing drugs during his career and employed various methods of deceiving the standardized tests to keep him racing.  The deception was tragically documented in the 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie, putting to film Armstrong’s very public fall from grace.

Now director Stephen Frears (Philomena) is heading up John Hodge’s (Trance) dramatization of Armstrong’s career and the investigation that ultimately proved what so many suspected for years.  As Armstrong, Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) looks a heckuva lot like Armstrong and he’s joined by Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires) as the journalist that made it his mission to uncover the truth.  With supporting work from Dustin Hoffman (Boychoir) and Lee Pace (Lincoln), I’m hoping The Program is more than just another (deserved) jab at Armstrong.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Finest Hours

finest_hours

Synopsis: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.

Release Date:  January 29, 2016

Thoughts: I’m happy to see that the Walt Disney Studios continues to give a fair share of their time to produce live-action films to balance out their animation division.  True, I think the time has passed for the classic entertainment of their hey-day of the ‘50s and ‘60s but they seem committed to releasing stories that resonate with audiences.  It’s also true that the efforts can be hit or miss.  I loved 2015’s McFarland U.S.A. but was fairly underwhelmed with 2014’s Million Dollar Arm…thanks to Jon Hamm’s lackluster leading man performance and story told from the wrong perspective.  The director of that film, Craig Gillespie, is on board for Disney’s 2016 film The Finest Hours and it already looks like an improvement over his previous effort.

The true life tale of the “most daring rescue attempt in Coast Guard history”, this period piece boasts a nice assemblage of character actors and Chris Pine (Into the Woods) as the leading man.  As usual, I think the trailer is too long and gives too much away for a film of this nature…but if the final product captures that old-school Disney storytelling magic all will certainly be forgiven.

Movie Review ~ Lone Survivor

lone_survivor

The Facts:

Synopsis: Marcus Luttrell and his team set out on a mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, in late June 2005. Marcus and his team are left to fight for their lives in one of the most valiant efforts of modern warfare.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Eric Bana

Director: Peter Berg

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: “Holy moly.”  That’s what I found myself instinctively saying out loud several times during Lone Survivor, a taut war film that brings its audience along for a bone crunching journey along its razor’s edge of a true life tale.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Lone Survivor when early trailers were released.  I’ve grown wary of war films after years of similarly themed cinematic excursions both fictional and documentary-like that I just couldn’t fathom that this film, directed by Battleship helmer Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, would have anything new to bring to the battlefield.  Just goes to show that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; or in this case judge a film by its marketing materials.

Berg opens the film with images from the limit-testing training that United States Navy SEALs undergo to take their place alongside the brave men and women serving our country.  It’s an eye-opening and pulse raising start, illustrating in no uncertain terms that only the best of the best make it through.  As the action transfers to a military base, we’re introduced to the members of the team of Operation Red Wings, tasked to track a high ranking dangerous Taliban leader.

Leading the team is Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter, Savages), he’s joined by Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch, Killer Joe, The Darkest Hour), Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster, Contraband), and Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg, Ted, Pain & Gain) who wrote the book (along with Patrick Robinson) on which Berg adapted his screenplay from.  Comrades and brothers, this recon and surveillance team is a well oiled machine venturing into no man’s land with an important mission.

It’s not long before one wrong (but I suppose morally right) decision tosses the men into the path of mortal danger…leading to a middle section that puts the audience through a white knuckle gauntlet.  So many war films make the mistake of favoring jittery camera work to establish chaos but Berg and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler play against this and let their staging of these combat scenes tell the story instead.  There are several skillfully crafted heart pounding passages as the soldiers come face to face with their enemy and their own mortality.  Having already won a SAG Award for their work, special mention must be made again to the stunt performers on the film…with two sequences involving falling down the sheer edge of a mountain you’ll be wincing with each somersault/tumble.

Though the title gives the ending away, it doesn’t lessen the impact the film or its characters have on us.  Even when the film dips into standard stylized action fare in the last act there’s an underlying message of salvation to be had by everyone involved.  Berg has cast the film so well that he doesn’t need to coax committed performances out of anyone onscreen.  All four actors could have headlined the picture but Wahlberg again shows he’s light years away from his Funky Bunch days by turning in a layered rendering of Luttrell.

I expected the film to end with a dedication to the men who lost their lives but wasn’t prepared for how much of an emotional force it would have on me.  Berg and company have approached this material with the utmost respect for the bravery of those that put their lives on the line for their country and have delivered a superior war film that doesn’t glorify, grandstand, or proselytize…  It’s a better film that I ever would have thought it would/could be – and comes highly recommended.

The Silver Bullet ~ Lone Survivor

lone_survivor

Synopsis: Based on the failed June 28, 2005 mission “Operation Red Wings.” Four members of SEAL Team 10 were tasked with the mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd.

Release Date:  January 10, 2014

Thoughts: Is it OK to say that I’m really over these war films that have anything to do with Afghanistan or the Taliban?  Even if Lone Survivor has an impressive cast and is adapted from a New York Times bestseller, I just don’t know if I can bring myself to sit through another shaky camera war themed movie where the audience already knows the ending but chomps away on their popcorn waiting for people to die.  I think there’s been such an impressive line-up of fiction and non-fiction films surrounding the war in the last decade that with every new addition one has to reevaluate how many times we want to bear witness t another tragic story.  That being said, I’ll choose to focus on the diverse array of committed actors that director Peter Berg has assembled.  Mark Wahlberg (Ted, Pain & Gain, Contraband), Eric Bana (Closed Circuit, Star Trek), Taylor Kitsch (Battleship, Savages, John Carter), Ben Foster, and Emilie Hirsch all bring something different to the table so I hold out hope that Berg uses the war setting as a canvas where the focus can ultimately be on the actors.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

aint-them-bodies-saints-poster

Synopsis: The tale of an outlaw who escapes from prison and sets out across the Texas hills to reunite with his wife and the daughter he has never met

Release Date:  August 16, 2013

Thoughts: A film that looks to be an intriguing mix of Terrence Malik cinematic grandeur and Coen Brothers dark romantic triangles, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints may not be grammatically correct but it sure does look like a film to sit up and take notice of.  Casey Affleck is one of the more underrated actors working in Hollywood today and this could finally be the film that wakes up Hollywood to an actor really coming into his own.  Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects) is another fascinating actress that’s on the hot list right now thanks to her ‘all-in’ approach to her performances.  Set against the ominous stretches of Texas back country, I’ll be interested in taking a look at this one later in the summer.