“JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” (2014) Review

,JACK-RYAN

“JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” (2014) Review

There have been four previous movies that featured the literary character, Jack Ryan. But those four movies were adaptations of novels written by the late Tom Clancy. Paramount Pictures released a fifth movie featuring the character called “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT”. Unlike the previous four movies, this fifth one is not based upon a Clancy novel.

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh and written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” is presented as a reboot that chronicles Jack Ryan’s early years as a C.I.A. analyst. I realize that the 2002 movie, “THE SUM OF ALL FEARS” also featured Jack’s early years as an analyst. But Jack was already established with the C.I.A. in that film. “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” also chronicled Jack’s years as a graduate student in Britain, his time as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan and how he ended up being recruited into the C.I.A. The movie also revealed how he had recovered from a deadly helicopter crash and met his future wife, Dr. Cathy Muller. But more importantly, the movie’s basic plot is about Jack uncovered a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack and send the country into another Great Depression.

Once the circumstances leading to Jack’s recruitment into the C.I.A. was conveyed, Cozad and Koepp’s screenplay began with Jack working undercover as a compliance officer at a Wall Street stock brokerage, looking for suspect financial transactions that indicated terrorist activity. After the Russian Federation loses a key vote before the United Nations, Jack discovers that trillions of dollars held by Russian organizations have disappeared. A large number of those funds are controlled by a veteran of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Viktor Cherevin. The latter and a group of Russian politicans are seeking revenge against the Americans for the latter’s intervention in that particular invasion. Since Jack’s Wall Street employer does business with Cherevin and Jack discovers that certain accounts are inaccessible to him as auditor, he has a reason to visit Moscow and investigate. Unfortunately for Jack, he narrowly survives an assassination attempt upon his arrival in Moscow . . . and is forced to send out an S.O.S. to the C.I.A. for help. Even worse, his fiancée Cathy suspects him of having an affair and flies to Moscow to confront him. In the end, Jack and his C.I.A. recruiter William Harper not only have to find a way to stop Cherevin, but also keep Cathy out of danger.

Russians and terrorist attacks. Hmmmm . . . I have noticed that the use of Russian politics as a bogeyman has been very popular in Hollywood political thrillers lately. Is this due to the unpopularity of that country’s current leader, Vladimir Putin? I wonder. Am I putting down the plot for “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT”? As I just hinted, I did not find the use of post-Soviet Russians as villains original. And the villains’ goal to destroy the U.S. economy did not seem original, as well. I have four more complaints about the movie. One, I never saw the necessity of including Jack’s years before the C.I.A. – as a graduate student in Britain and his time in the U.S. Marines. In fact, it was not really necessary for screenwriters to designate the William Harper character as Jack’s recruiter, since he was more important in Jack’s efforts to prevent Cherevin’s plot to destroy the U.S. economy. I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed by Cozad and Koepp’s use of the Cathy Muller character as a damsel-in-distress – especially in the movie’s second half. And speaking of the second half, once Jack and Harper fly back to the U.S. to prevent the attack, the plot seemed to rush forward with the speed of a runaway train. As for the movie’s title – I found it cumbersome and amateurish. Enough said.

Despite its flaws, I still enjoyed “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT”. Despite a plot that lacked originality, I must admit that I found it entertaining. Three-fourths of the plot regarding the terrorist attack struck me as well-paced. And I must admit that possessed a great deal of suspense – especially in the sequence that featured Jack’s attempt to download Cherevin’s files in the middle of a dinner party between him, Cherevin and Cathy in Moscow. The movie also had its share of first-rate action sequences. I was especially impressed by the assassination attempt on Jack inside his Moscow hotel room, Jack and Harper’s attempt to rescue the kidnapped Cathy from Cherevin during a car chase, and the final action scene in which Jack tries to prevent Cherevin’s son from blowing up Wall Street. I thought Kenneth Braunagh handled those scenes very well. I was also impressed by his direction of two particular dramatic scenes – Cathy’s confrontation with Jack and Harper inside the younger man’s hotel room; along with Jack and Cathy’s tense dinner with Cherevin at a Moscow restaurant. The movie also benefited from Haris Zambarloukos’ sleek and colorful photography – especially the Moscow sequences, Martin Walsh’s editing in the Moscow hotel fight scene, the Cherevin dinner sequence and the final action sequence in Manhattan.

“JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” featured some pretty solid performances. Both Chris Pine and Keira Knightley were excellent as the younger Jack Ryan and Cathy Muller. And the two performers rose above the occasion to really shine in the scene that featured their characters’ Moscow confrontation about their relationship. Colm Feore and David Paymer gave brief, yet entertaining performances in the movie. It seemed a pity that they did not have more scenes. Alec Utgoff was properly villainous in a subtle way as the terrorist Aleksandr Borovsky. But I feel that the movie’s two best performances came from Kevin Costner and director Kenneth Branaugh, who portrayed Jack’s mentor William Harper and the main villain Viktor Cherevin. In a way, it almost seemed a pity that Costner was not the main hero of this story. He was excellent as the cool and resourceful Harper. More importantly, he reminded me – and a relative of mine – that he was charismatic as ever and had not lost his screen presence. Branaugh had the more difficult task of serving as the movie’s director, which he performed with great style; and portraying the movie’s leading villain. And he did a superb job of conveying Cherevin’s frightening personality without being over-the-top about it.

Considering that “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” was released in January, I was not expecting it to be some top-notch action thriller that usually rakes in a lot of money during the summer movie season. And the movie pretty much lived up to my expectations. I could never regard “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” as one of the better action movies I have seen. And I certainly do not regard it as highly as I do the other four movies in the Jack Ryan movie franchise. But as I had earlier pointed out, Kenneth Branaugh still managed to direct the movie with a good deal of style and energy. The plot may not have been that original, but it still proved to be entertaining. And the first-rate performances from a cast led by Chris Pine did a lot to make this movie somewhat worthy to me.

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“SOURCE CODE” (2011) Review

“SOURCE CODE” (2011) Review

It is a miracle that I ever got the chance to see the new techno-thriller, “SOURCE CODE”. It is a miracle . . . at least to me, because I never saw a movie trailer or read an article about it before the eve of its release. I would have ignored it completely if I had not noticed several billboards advertising the movie throughout the city. And since the movie featured actors I happened to admire, I decided to go see it. 

Directed by Duncan Jones and written by Ben Ripley, “SOURCE CODE” is about a decorated army helicopter pilot named Colter Stevens, who finds himself on a mission to locate the maker of a bomb that exploded and destroyed a train headed into downtown Chicago. Stevens is isolated inside a chamber, where he communicates with Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin. She explains to Stevens via a computer screen that he is inside the Source Code, a program that allows him to take over someone’s body in his or her last eight minutes of life. He learns from the program’s creator, Dr. Rutledge that the Source Code is not a simulation, but a visit into the past in the form of an alternative reality. Stevens cannot truly alter the past to save any of the passengers, but that he must gather intelligence that can be used to alter the future and prevent a future attack. In short, Steven’s mission is to locate the bomb on the train, discover who had built it and report back to Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge before the bomber can detonate a second larger bomb, a dirty nuclear device in Chicago.

While watching the movie’s first half hour, I had assumed that the psychic essence of the Colter Stevens’ character was being sent back into the past to change the timeline and prevent the destruction of the train. I thought that this was some kind of cinematic version of the old UPN television series, “SEVEN DAYS” (1998-2001). But Stevens eventually discovered how he got the assignment to identify the bomber. Confused and frustrated, he used the cell phone of a train passenger and discovered that he had supposedly died in the Afghanistan war two months earlier and that his severely injured body was appropriated by the Air Force and used by Dr. Rutledge to enter the Source Code. When that plot twist was revealed, I realized that “SOURCE CODE” might have more in common with both the U.K. and U.S. versions of“LIFE ON MARS”.

“SOURCE CODE” was not a hit. Although the movie earned three times the amount of its budget, it really did not earn that much at the box office, despite favorable reviews from critics. Pity. Because I believe that it was a well made film. I also have to give kudos to Don Burgess for his supervision of the movie’s visual effects, including his photography of Montreal and Chicago. I was especially impressed at how he and his crew handled a particular scene in which the Stevens character exchanged romantic glances with one of the train’s passengers, a woman named Christina Warren, while the train was being incinerated by the terrorist’s bomb.

Director Duncan Jones did justice to Ben Ripley’s first-rate script with excellent pacing and action sequences. And using the superb cast led by Jake Gyllenhaal, he handled the dramatic scenes very well. Jones managed to do a great job in balancing both the dramatic and actions sequences. But what really made “SOURCE CODE” very appealing to me was Ben Ripley’s screenplay. I cannot help but admire how he paced each big revelation in the movie’s story without rushing or bringing it to a slow crawl. And as I had watched the movie reached its finale, it occurred to me that “SOURCE CODE”ended on a note that I believe that the U.S. version of “LIFE ON MARS” should have. I found the whole experience very satisfying.

Earlier, I had commented on the superb acting in the “SOURCE CODE”. And I still maintain that belief. Although the movie featured solid acting by the supporting cast, it was the four main leads that shined . . . at least in my opinion. Jake Gyllenhaal did a marvelous job in his portrayal of Coulter Stevens, the military helicopter pilot that found himself a part of a government program that he never signed for. Gyllenhaal perfectly conveyed his character’s initial confusion, growing awareness of the Source Code program, his growing affection toward the Christina Warren character. And the actor managed to pull all of these acting chops and remain a very effective action hero. Both Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright as Colleen Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge respectively, took me by surprise. Literally. Farmiga’s Captain Goodwin started out as a cool professional that utilized a brusque manner to ensure the completion of Stevens’ mission. But the actress did an excellent job in conveying her character’s growing attachment and compassion toward the doomed helicopter pilot. Wright’s Dr. Rutledge followed a reverse path. When his character was first introduced, I was left with the impression of a slightly nervous and shy man who was determined to save Chicago. But as the movie progressed, Wright slowly, but effectively pulled back the layers of his character to reveal a man, whose obsession with his creation had eroded a great deal of humanity from his personality. Behind the shy and nervous man was a ruthless being that lacked any compassion whatsoever. Watching Wright perform, it occurred to me that he has become a true chameleon, capable of getting under the skin of any character. Michelle Monaghan’s portrayal of the passenger Christina Warren seemed to lack the complexity of the other three major characters. But I must admit that she did a great job in portraying her character as a warm and vibrant personality. One could not label her character as a “damsel-in-distress”. After all, her character had died before the movie’s first reel. But it finally occurred to me that instead of the damsel, Monaghan’s Christina Warren served as Coulter Steven’s emotional center.

Did “SOURCE CODE” have any flaws? Well . . . I realize that I had commented on the supporting cast’s “solid” action. And I stand by my word. However, not all of them were perfect. There were a few characters among the train’s passengers that struck me as a tad over-the-top. If the movie had any other flaws, I did not notice. I was too busy being intrigued and entertained by Ben Ripley’s first-rate story, Duncan Jones’ direction and the superb acting by the movie’s four leads. It is a pity that the movie failed to become a major hit, despite earning a profit. I still believe that it had deserved to become one.

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

Forty-one years ago, an old literary character was re-introduced to many readers, thanks to a former Scottish journalist named George MacDonald Fraser. The author took a character from a famous Victorian novel and created a series of novels that placed said character in a series of historical events throughout the middle and second half of the 19th century.

The 1857 novel, ”TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS”, told the story of a young English boy named Tom Brown and his experiences at the famous school, Rugby, during the 1830s. One of Tom’s travails focused on his abuse at the hands of an older student – a bully – named Flashman. However, Flashman got drunk at a local tavern and in the following morning was expelled by Rugby’s famous headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold. Fraser took the Flashman character, gave him a first name – Harry – and continued his story following the expulsion from Rugby in the 1969 novel, ”FLASHMAN”.

The beginning of the novel saw the seventeen year-old Harry Flashman trying to find a new profession following his expulsion from Rugby. Due to his father’s wealth and his maternal Uncle Bindley Paget’s social connections, Flashman found a position as a junior officer in one of Britain’s most elite Army regiments, the 11th Hussars aka the Cherrypickers. And thanks to his talent for toadying and projecting a sense of style (inherited from his aristocratic late mother), Flashman managed to win the support and favor of the regimental commander, the haughty James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Unfortunately, Flashman’s ideal life as a leisurely Army officer came to an end. His involvement with the French mistress of a fellow officer kicked off a series of events that led to Flashman being swept into the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). One of those events included seducing one Elspeth Morrison, the sixteen year-old daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant. After being forced to marry her by her relations, Flashman was kicked out of the 11th Hussars and sent to India by Lord Cardigan, who regarded the marriage as a step down the social ladder for the usually favored young Army officer.

It was in Afghanistan that Flashman earned the nickname, “Bloody Lance” by taking credit for his servant’s killing of four Afghan attackers. There, he also met one Ilderim Khan, the son of a pro-British Afghan nobleman and became the latter’s lifelong friend and blood brother. This friendship would end up saving Flashman’s life during the Sepoy Rebellion in”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Flashman also managed to earn two deadly enemies – an Afghan warlord named Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife), a dancer named Narreeman. The source of the pair’s enmity toward Flashman originated with his rape of Narreeman.

More importantly, ”FLASHMAN” allowed readers to view many important events of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Not only did Flashman meet many historical figues such as Lord Cardigan, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington, but also Alexander Burnes, Akbar Khan, William Macnaghten, Thomas Arnold, and the incompetent commander of the British Army in Afghanistan, General William Elphinstone.

I must admit that my opinion of the novel has changed a great deal over the years. Originally, I held a low opinion of”FLASHMAN” for years, comparing it to the more epic-like sagas such as ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973),”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975)”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) and ”FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON” (1985). I still regard these four novels in a higher regard than ”FLASHMAN”. But I must admit that perhaps I had been a little unfair in my regard for the 1969 novel. It is actually a solid adventure story filled with historical interest, witty humor, sharp action and excellent pacing. Some fans of The Flashman Papers have expressed disgust or disenchantment with the Harry Flashman character portrayed in this novel. I suspect that a great deal of these negative opinions may have stemmed from Flashman’s rape of Narreeman. And I understand. However, many of these fans also complained about the young British officer’s crass style and manner – especially toward his father’s mistress, Judy. One has to remember that Harry Flashman aged from 17 to 20 years old in this story. He did convey some semblance of the style, common sense and instinct that would fool many people and serve him for years. But as an adolescent on the threshold of twenty, he had yet to learn some of the hard facts of life. As for his rough treatment and negative opinion of Judy, I suspect that his ego suffered a massive blow, when she rejected him, following a one-time bout under the sheets. A blow that he obviously had failed to recover from after six decades, while ”writing” his memoirs.

”FLASHMAN” also had its share of interesting fictional characters. I have already mentioned the villainous Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife) Narreeman. I have also mentioned the young Afghan who became a close friend of Flashy’s, Ilderim Khan. But he had an even larger role in ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And as I had mentioned, Elspeth also appeared in the novel. However, her presence in the novel would not be truly felt, until the last chapter that featured Harry’s homecoming. Fraser barely explored her personality in the novel, but he did allow a peek into her promiscuous and self-absorbed nature in that last chapter. One particular character, Sergeant Hudson, proved to be a reliable source of defense for Flashman during the retreat from Kabul. During this event, Flashman experienced one of the most bizarre moments of his life, while being rejected by the young wife of an Army officer named Mrs. Betty Parker, whom he was trying to seduce:

“‘What the devil’ says I. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Oh, you brute!’ she hissed – for she had the sense to keep her voice down – ‘you filthy, beastly brute! Get out of my tent at once! At once, d’you her?’

I could make nothing of this, and said so. ‘What have I done? I was only being friendly. What are you acting so damned missish for?’

‘Oh base!’ says she. ‘You . . . you . . .’

‘Oh, come now,’ says I. ‘You’re in very high ropes, to be sure. You weren’t so proper when I squeezed you the other night.’

‘Squeezed me?’ says she, as though I had uttered some unmentionable word.

‘Aye, squeezed. Like this.’ And I reached over and, with a quick fumble in the dark, caught one of her breasts. To my amazement, she didn’t seem to mind.

‘Oh, that!’ she says. ‘What an evil creature you are! You know that is nothing; all gentlemen do that, in affection. But you, you monstrous beast, presume on my friendship to try to . . . Oh, oh, I could die of shame!’

If I had not heard her I shouldn’t have believed it. God knows I have learned enough since of the inadequacies of education given to young Englishwomen, but this was incredible.”

This last encounter with Mrs. Betty Parker struck me as a hilarious metaphor for the blindingly naïve morality that had began to encroach early Victorian society.

”FLASHMAN” also provided some interesting historical vignettes from the First Anglo-Afghan War. And young Flashman managed to witness or participate in a good number of them. The novel allowed him to be the sole surviving British witness to the murder of political officer, Sir Alexander Burnes and his younger brother, Charles. He also witnessed the murder of another political officer named Sir William Macnaghten, along with Last Stand at Gandamak and the Siege of Jalalabad. But Fraser’s pièce de résistance in ”FLASHMAN” proved to be the disasterous Kabul retreat in which the British contingent under General Elphinstone were forced to march from Afghanistan to India in cold weather and dire circumstances:

“From other accounts of that frightful march that I have read – mostly Mackenzie’s and Lawrence’s and Lady Sale’s – I can fit a few of my recollections into their chronicle, but in the main it is just a terrible, bloody nightmare even now, more than sixty years after. Ice and blood and groans and death and despair, and the shrieks of dying men and women and the howling of the Ghazis and Gilzais. They rushed and struck, and rushed and struck again, mostly at the camp-followers, until it seemed there was a slashed brown body every yard of the way. The only place of safety was in the heart of Shelton’s main body, where the sepoys still kept some sort of order; I suggested to Elphy when we set off that I and my lancers should ride guard on the womenfolk, and he agreed at once. It was a wise move on my part, for the attacks on the flanks were now so frequent that the work we had been doing yesterday was become fatally dangerous. Mackenzie’s jezzailchis were cut to ribbons stemming the sorties.”

Reading the above passage made me wonder about the wisdom of the current Western presence in Afghanistan. And there is nothing like a British military disaster to bring out the best of Fraser’s writing skulls. It proved to be the first of such passages in novels like ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” and ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”.

In the end, Fraser did a solid job in initiating what would proved to be The Flashman Papers in his first novel,”FLASHMAN”. Granted, the novel’s first part set in England struck me as slightly rushed. And the Harry Flashman character seemed a bit crude in compare to his characterizations in the novels that followed. Like many other readers, I found his rape of the Narreeman character hard to stomach. But Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating early Victorian Britain, British India, Afghanistan and the First Anglo-Afghan War. In short, ”FLASHMAN” turned out to be a solid start to an excellent series of historical novels.

“THE A-TEAM” (2010) Review

“THE A-TEAM” (2010) Review

I might as well lay my cards on the table. Ever since I saw my first episode, I have always been a major fan of the 1983-1987 television series, ”THE A-TEAM”. So, when I had seen the trailer for the movie adaptation of the series, I naturally reacted with pure dismay. 

For me, the movie, ”THE A-TEAM”, represented another endless attempt by Hollywood to create box office gold from an old television series. Mind you, not all of Hollywood’s efforts have been in vain. But judging from what I had seen in the movie trailer, I simply could not see myself enjoying the 2010 movie.

Unlike the television series, ”THE A-TEAM” is more or less an origin tale about how four U.S. Army Special Forces combatants became soldiers of fortune after being convicted for a crime they did not commit. The movie’s first twenty minutes revealed how Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith first created his team during an assignment to lure a reengage Mexican Army officer-turned-drug lord onto U.S. soil or airspace for prosecution. Already working with him is Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck, who is a prisoner at the general’s ranch. Along the way, Hannibal recruits a recently disgraced ex-Ranger named Bosco “B.A.” Baracus and a mentally volatile Army pilot named Captain H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock to assist him in his assignment and thus, a new Army intelligence unit is born.

The story jumped eight years later where the A-Team find themselves looking forward to being deployed out of Iraq with the rest of the American military personnel. However, a C.I.A. agent named Lynch recruits Hannibal and the Team into retrieving U.S. Treasury plates and manufactured currency from Iraqi insurgents. U.S. Army Captain Charissa Sosa, a former lover of Face’s; and Hannibal’s commanding officer, General Morrison, warns the Team to stay away from the plates and Baghdad. But the Team goes ahead with the “Black Ops” mission and successfully retrieves the plates and the money. Upon their return to base, the shipping container carrying the money and General Morrison’s vehicle are destroyed. And the leader of a private security team named Brock Pike steals the plates. With General Morrison dead, there is no one to inform Army authorities that they had been authorized to act. The Team is sentenced to ten years in prison.

Try as I may, I cannot recall one specific episode of the television series. I can remember certain moments and many interactions between the B.A. and Murdock characters; but I cannot recall a specific episode. This should not be that surprising to me. The writing for the television series had never been that impressive. The main characters and the action, after all, drew me to the series; not the writing. I do believe that screenwriters Joe Carnahan (who also directed), Brian Bloom and Skip Woods created a slightly better story than anything the series had ever been able to produce. But I would not exactly call the screenplay unique or mind blowing.

The gist of the story mainly focused upon the Team’s efforts to find Pike and the Treasury plates in order to clear their names. Mind you, I found the circumstances leading up to the Team’s arrest rather confusing. After all, they did return to base after completing their mission, instead of disappearing from Iraq. With Pike gone with the plates, why prosecute the Team for the crime? And what crime was they accused of committing? The theft of the missing plates? Or killing Morrison? Once the movie shifted toward their escape from prison and efforts to find the plates and Pike, it shifted back upon solid ground. The movie also featured some pretty fantastic stunts that would have made the television series proud. But the pièce de résistance centered upon a sequence in which the Team finally get their hands on the plates from a high-rise bank in Germany. The movie also featured a hilarious moment in which Face discovered that he had given both B.A. and Murdock the wrong passports at a German airport. The finale at the Port of Los Angeles strongly reminded me of the finale featured in the recent movie, ”THE LOSERS”. I wonder who came up with the idea first.

As I had earlier stated, there were two aspects of the television series that made it memorable for me – the action sequences and the characters. This new movie certainly DID NOT disappoint that regard. Liam Neeson, last seen in the 2009 action movie, ”TAKEN”, assumed George Peppard’s role of Hannibal Smith. And he did a fine job. Mind you, his Hannibal did not seem to have much of a sense of humor – especially where Face was concerned. But he obviously drew his experience from previous action films to project the aura of a strong and wily leader. I only have two complaints about Neeson’s performance – his American accent seemed shaky and he should stay away from cigars. Bradley Cooper gave a verbose performance as the Team’s smooth-talking ladies’ man, Face. Like Dirk Benedict before him, he was attractive and witty. Yet, the screenwriters took his character one step further by allowing his Face to show his potential as a schemer on the same level as Hannibal.

My dismay at the trailer for ”THE A-TEAM” extended to the idea of Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson portraying the memorable B.A. Baracus. He seemed a far cry from Mr. T’s performance in the television series. Thankfully, my fears came to nothing. Although Jackson’s performance was not an exact replica of Mr. T’s, he made a great B.A. and he put his own twist to the character with the help of director Joe Carnahan and the three screenwriters. Actually, his B.A. seemed to have a little more depth and for some reason, I cannot see Mr. T pulling this off. No none was more surprised than me to discover that the same Sharlto Copely who portrayed “Howling Mad” Murdock is the same actor who portrayed the lead in last year’s ”DISTRICT 9”. I knew the guy was not a Southerner. His accent seemed a bit heavy a times. But I had no idea that “crazy” Murdock was portrayed by the South African actor. But I must admit that he was hilarious in the role. Hell, he was just as funny as Dwight Schultz. His interactions with both Cooper and especially Jackson were spot on.

Fortunately for ”THE A-TEAM”, its supporting cast was just as strong. Jessica Biel gave a strong performance as the righteous and determined Captain Charissa Sosa, who is assigned to hunt down both the Team and the Treasury plates. One particular scene also proved that she had great chemistry with Cooper. Gerald McRaney gave a solid cameo performance as Hannibal’s friend and commanding officer, General Morrison. Brian Bloom (one of the screenwriters) was suitably conniving and intimidating as the Black Forest private mercenary. However, there were moments when his performance came off as a bit over-the-top. But the man who really surprised me was Patrick Wilson. Aside from his performance as the uptight William Travis in 2004’s ”THE ALAMO”, he never struck me as an interesting actor. Until I saw him in ”THE A-TEAM”. He was hilarious and despicable as the smug and self-absorbed C.I.A. agent, Lynch. Not only was his performance a revelation, his Lynch seemed to be the most interesting role he has ever portrayed.

If anyone is expecting ”THE A-TEAM” to be a mind-blowing experience, he or she will be disappointed. Superficially, the movie struck me as a typical action movie. I must admit that it does contain some pretty interesting action sequences. If there is one true virtue that the movie possesses, it is its cast. They were superb – especially the main four actors who portray the soldiers of fortune, the A-Team. Between Carnahan’s direction of the action sequences and the performances of Neeson, Cooper, Jackson and Copley; they made this cinematic version of ”THE A-TEAM” to be one of the most fun movies I have experienced last summer.

“NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” (2007) and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007) Reviews

“NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” (2007) and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007)  Reviews

Three years ago, two movies were released in the theaters . . . two movies that could not be anymore different than if they had tried. I am speaking of “NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR”. The first movie, starring Nicholas Cage and Jon Voight, is a sequel to the 2004 Disney film, “NATIONAL TREASURE”. The other is a comedy-drama about a Texas congressman from the 1980s who found himself involved in Afghanistan’s attempts to free itself from a Soviet invasion.

“National Treasure 2: The Book of Secrets”

This sequel to the 2004 movie – “National Treasure” – opens with the Gates family – Benjamin and Patrick (Nicholas Cage and Jon Voight) – learning from a black market dealer named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) that their Civil War ancestor Thomas Gates (Joel Gretsch) may have been the mastermind behind Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Wilkinson’s so-called proof came from assassin John Wilkes Booth’s diary. To prove their ancestor’s innocence and family honor, Ben and Patrick recruit the aid of family friend Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), Ben’s estranged girlfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), Patrick’s ex-wife Emily Appleton (Helen Mirren), FBI Agent Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) and even the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) to help them find the treasure of gold that would vindicate Thomas Gates and the family’s name.

In a nutshell, this sequel turned out to be just as fun and exciting as the first movie. Ben Gates and company follow clues that lead them from Paris to London to Washington D.C. and finally Mount Rushmore in the Dakota Black Hills. The cast were their usual competent selves and Ed Harris turned out to be just as effective as a villain as Sean Bean had been in the first film. My favorite sequences included Ben, Abigail and Riley’s attempt to gain access to one of the rooms at Buckingham Palace, Ben and Abigail’s minor adventures at the White House and Ben’s kidnapping of the President at Mount Vernon.

I did have a few problems with the movie. My biggest gripe turned out to be the treasure itself. I realize that the Templar treasure found in the first film could not be topped. But I must admit that the City of Gold found beneath Mount Rushmore had failed to impress me at all. And why end the movie at Mount Rushmore? Granted there was a war between American settlers and the Dakota Sioux in 1862, but what did that have to do with the Civil War? I would have been happier if the movie’s setting had remained on the East Coast.

Aside from these minor gripes, “National Treasure 2: The Book of Secrets” turned out to be as entertaining as the first film. I would highly recommend it.

“Charlie Wilson’s War”

This historical drama told the story of recently departed Texas congressman Charles Wilson (Tom Hanks)’s efforts to get the United States to aid the Mujahideen (Afghanistan freedom fighters) in their fight against the military invaders from the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Urged on by his staunchly anti-Communist friend and romantic interest, Texas heiress Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), Wilson became deeply involved to help the Afghans throw the Soviets out of their country without the world knowing about U.S. involvement. The film not only revealed Wilson’s growing disdain for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it also gave moviegoers a look into his gregarious social life of women and partying.

Judging from the movie’s Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nomination, one could see that “Charlie Wilson’s War”has become a front-runner for Academy Award nominations. Does it deserve the acclamation? I do not know. Granted, Mike Nichols did a competent job in allowing moviegoers a peek into Washington and international politics, and C.I.A. policies. Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos) were excellent. But if I must be honest, the movie did not give me a charge. I liked it. I really found it entertaining. But I did not love it. When leaving the theater, I had this feeling that something was missing. It could have been the unsatisfying ending, which I found to be rushed. Or perhaps I thought the story could have required a little more depth.

I cannot say that “Charlie Wilson’s War” was great. But I did find it entertaining. And if you are intrigued by a look into American politics during the 1980s, I would highly recommend it.

“GREEN ZONE” (2010) Review

“GREEN ZONE” (2010) Review

Over three years ago, journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote a book about the early days after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the occupation and governance particularly of Baghdad and the search for weapons of mass destruction. Director Paul Greengrass and actor Matt Damon took ”Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” and turned it into a political thriller about the clashing ideals of U.S. personnel on how to handle the occupation of Iraq. 

The story began with U.S. Army Warrant Officer Roy Miller’s search of a third location for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) allegedly created by Saddam Hussein’s government. Upon arriving at this third location, Miller discovered no signs of mass destruction weapons being manufactured or stored . . . just as he had discovered at the two previous locations. During a debriefing at the American “Green Zone” (the location of the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad), Miller announced his discoveries or lack of them and openly questioned the intelligence reports regarding the weapons. His comments earned the attention of the CIA’s Baghdad bureau chief, Martin Brown and Clark Poundstone, a Pentagon Special Intelligence official. The two men have different agendas regarding the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Brown wanted to utilize Saddam Hussein’s Army generals to help the U.S. keep the peace and prevent the country from succumbing to civil war. Poundstone, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with the generals. Instead, he wanted them dead and to install a pro-American puppet named Ahmed Zubadi as Iraq’s new leader. When an Iraqui man named ‘Freddy’ informed Miller of the location of the Iraqi generals, the warrant officer not only found himself caught between Brown and Poundstone’s agendas, but those of other characters – including his own.

”GREEN ZONE” is not the best political thriller I have ever seen. But I must admit that it is a pretty damn good movie. What made this particular movie interesting is that nearly all of the major characters have their own agendas. Some managed to achieve their agendas. Some did not. And at least one managed to achieve his agenda, only to lose in the end. ”GREEN ZONE” turned out to be one of the most ambiguous stories I have seen in recent years. Ambiguous on a level that would surprise many. And I suspect that many moviegoers would have preferred if the supporting characters’ moral compass – especially those of the Iraqi characters – had been a little less murky. But Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland decided not to take that route. And I am glad. The supporting characters’ ambiguity not only forced the lead character, Roy Miller, to become a wiser man; but made the story more interesting to me.

In another review of ”GREEN ZONE”, I read a complaint that none of the main characters really developed. I would disagree . . . from a certain point of view. What happened to most of the main characters was that most found themselves forced to face the realities of their situations. They spent so much of their time pursuing a particular agenda, until they realized that what they had wanted or were fighting for was nothing more than an illusion. Not only did Miller come to this realization, but also the movie’s main antagonist, Clark Poundstone.

”GREEN ZONE” marked Matt Damon’s third collaboration with director Paul Greengrass. If anyone had expected U.S. Warrant Officer Roy Miller to be another Jason Bourne, they would end up disappointed. Damon’s Roy Miller was not some superspy trying to come to terms with his violent past. Miller was a well-trained and competent Army warrant officer (ranked below a commissioned officer and above a high ranking non-commissioned officer) who had naively believed the Bush Administration’s propaganda about Iraq’s mass destruction weapons program. Damon did a top-notch job in conveying Miller’s slow realization that not only had he been naïve regarding his country’s decision to invade Iraq, but also about Iraq’s political situation. By the movie’s end, his Miller was still a very competent Army warrant officer. But the character also became a wiser and slightly embittered man. As a side note, the Miller character was based upon Warrant Officer Richard (Monty) Gonzales, whose Mobile Exploitation Team was charged with finding the WMDs during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Greg Kinnear was excellent as usual in his portrayal of the Pentagon Special Intelligence official, Clark Poundstone. His Poundstone seemed to have an air of a typical politician – charming, manipulative and very arrogant. Yet, these very traits blinded Poundstone from the true state of Iraqi politics. And Kinnear ably conveyed the official’s shock upon realizing that he had been very naïve. Brendan Gleeson’s character, CIA bureau chief Martin Brown, seemed like a different kettle of fish. Although both men were manipulative, Brown seemed more appraised of Iraq’s political situation and a lot more honest with Miller – a situation that would lead him to make the warrant officer an ally. And Gleeson did an excellent job in conveying Brown’s failure to consider the lengths Poundstone would go to achieve his goal.

The rest of the supporting cast also provided first-rate support – aside from one. Khalid Abdalla gave an emotional performance as ‘Freddy’, an Iraqi man who revealed the presence of Saddam’s generals and became Miller’s interpreter. His own personal agenda would prove to be the story’s wild card. Amy Ryan gave a complex performance as Lawrie Dayne, the journalist who realized that Poundstone had used her as a propaganda machine for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Her character was based upon former New York Times reporter, Judith Miller. Ambiguity seemed to be the name of the game in Yigal Naor’s performance as the ruthless General Al-Rawi, the Iraqi general who eventually discovered that Poundstone had lied to him about utilizing the Iraqi Army to help the U.S. keep the peace. The one performance that struck a negative note to me belonged to Jason Isaacs, who portrayed Major Briggs, an unscrupulous Delta Force officer, who portrayed Poundstone’s personal thug. I am not accusing Isaacs of a bad performance. I have to lay the blame upon Brian Helgeland, who wrote the character as one-dimensional. I doubt that any actor as talented as Isaacs could have done anything with the role except portray him as written – a murderous, yet competent thug.

Production designer Dominic Watkins did a solid job in recapturing the chaos of those early months of the American presence in Iraq. The contrast between war-torn Baghdad and the resort-like atmosphere of ‘the Green Zone’ struck me as amazing. Do not ask me about John Powell’s score for the movie, because I found it unmemorable. However, I cannot say the same about Barry Ackroyd’s photography. For me, it brought back bad memories of the shaky cam style featured in previous Greengrass/Damon movies like ”THE BOURNE SUPREMACY” and ”THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”. This particular cinematography style struck me as even more confusing in ”GREEN ZONE” This was especially apparent in the movie’s final action sequence. Just imagine the shaky cam photography and editing from the last two BOURNE films in a sequence shot at night and you might see how confused and dizzy I had felt from the experience.

As I had stated earlier, I would never call ”GREEN ZONE” one of the best political thrillers or war movies I have seen. The movie possessed certain elements I did not care for – the cinematography, Christopher Rouse’s editing and the portrayal of Jason Isaacs’ character. But the movie did have an interesting and complex story. The rest of the cast gave first-rate performances, given the ambiguous roles written for them. In the end, both Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon did themselves proud.

“THE MEN WHO STARED AT GOATS” (2009) Review

Below is my review of “THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”, a new comedy-drama directed by Grant Heslov that stars George Clooney and Ewan McGregor:

”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” (2009) Review

Grant Heslov directed this comedic adaptation of Jon Ronson’s book about the U.S. Army’s exploration of New Age concepts and the potential military applications of the paranormal. The movie starred George Clooney as one of the participants in this program and Ewan McGregor, who portrayed a journalist who stumbles across the story, while reporting on businesses with military contracts in Iraq. One of the surprising aspects of this movie is that its story is based upon fact. According to author Jon Ronson, there was actually a similar unit actually existed within the U.S. Army. The names were changed . . . and probably some of the facts, but the Army did explore New Age concepts and military applications of the paranormal.

The movie followed McGregor’s character, a journalist with the Ann Arbor Daily Telegram named Bob Wilton who stumbles onto the story of a lifetime when he meets a Special Forces operator named Lyn Cassady (Clooney) after flying to Kuwait out of anger, due to a recent divorce with his wife. During a trip across the Iraqi countryside, Cassady revealed his participation in an Army unit that trained to develop a range of par psychological skills by using New Age concepts. The unit ended up being named the New Earth Army. While the pair endured a journey that included encounters with a gang of Iraqi criminals, their fellow kidnap victim (Waleed Zuaiter), the head of a private security firm named Todd Nixon (Robert Patrick) and two rival groups of American contractors who engage in a gunfight against each other in Ramadi.

During Wilton and Cassady’s journey, the latter revealed the story behind the creation of the New Earth Army and its founder, a Vietnam War veteran named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who travelled across America in the 1970s for six years to explore a range of New Age movements (including the Human potential movement) after getting shot during the Vietnam War. Django used these experiences to create the New Earth Army. Django’s recruits ended up being nicknamed ”Jedi Warriors”. By the 1980s, two of Django’s best recruits were Lyn Cassady and Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who developed a lifelong rivalry because of their opposing views of how to implement the First Earth philosophy. Lyn wanted to emphasize the positive side of the teachings, whereas Larry was more interested in the dark side of the philosophy. Wilton and Cassady’s journey ended when they located a military base in the middle of the desert. They discovered that Larry Hooper has become the founder and head of PSIC, a private research firm engaged in psychological and psychic experiments on a herd of goats and some captured locals. A dismayed Cassady also learned that a now decrepit Django has become an employee of PSIC.

I must admit that I was not in a big hurry to see ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”. In fact, I never had any intention of seeing it in the first place. The only reason I went to see the movie in the first place was that I was desperate for something to watch. The movie season for the past two months has seemed pretty deplorable to me. Aside from ”THE INFORMANT’, I have not been able to stumble across a movie that I would find appealing. And what about ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”? Did I find it appealing? Honestly? It is not the best movie I have seen this year. But I must admit that thanks to Grant Heslov’s direction and Peter Straughan’s screenplay, I found the movie rather humorous in an off-kilter manner. Some of the most humorous scenes featured:

*Wilton and Cassady’s flight from a group of Iraqi criminals

*The ”Battle of Ramadi” between two American private security armies

*Bill Django’s six year exploration of New Age movements

*The results of Wilton and Django’s spiking of the Army base food with LSD.

At first, the movie’s approach to New Age religion and movements seemed inconsistent. The first half of the film did not seem to treat it as a joke. However, once Wilton and Cassady reached the base housing the PSIC, Straughan’s script treated the subject with a lot more respect. It took me a while to realize that the story was told from Bob Wilton’s point-of-view. It only seemed natural that he would first view the New Earth Army and New Age beliefs as a joke. But after time spent with Cassady and later Django at the PSIC base, Wilton naturally developed a newfound respect for both topics. The movie also provided a slightly pointed attack upon the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Normally, I would have cringed at such protesting in a comedy. Fortunately, Heslov used humor – and very sharp humor at that – to mock American presence in the Middle Eastern country.

I think that Lyn Cassady might turn out to be one of my favorite roles portrayed by George Clooney. One, he gave a hilarious performance. And two, he also did a marvelous job in infusing Cassady’s role with a mixture of super-military machismo and wide-eyed innocence. And despite his questionable American accent, I was very impressed by Ewan McGregor’s poignant performance as the lovelorn Michigan journalist (his wife left him for his editor), who travels to Iraq to prove his bravery to his former wife . . . only to discover something more unique. Another joyous addition to the cast turned out to be Jeff Bridges, who gave a wonderfully off-kilter performance as Cassady’s mentor and founder of the New Earth Army, Bill Django. And Larry Hooper, the one man allegedly responsible for bringing down Django’s New Earth Army, turned out to be another one of Kevin Spacey’s delicious villainous roles.

If ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” ever turn out to be a hit film, I would be very surprise. There is a good chance that many moviegoers might find the film’s use of topics such as the Army’s exploration of New Age movements and the paranormal to mock American military presence in Iraq a bit hard to take. And there is the possibility that filmgoers might find Straughan’s script used constant flashbacks to tell the story of the New Earth Army during Cassady and Wilton’s journey throughout Iraq rather confusing. Personally, I rather liked the movie. I doubt that it will ever be a big favorite of mine, but I still found it entertaining and interesting.