good_kill_280x415There’s nothing wrong with morally conscious movies. The problem arrives when morality overshadows character development and overtakes narrative. Good Kill is one of those films that drowns its drama with its own good intentions. The film takes place in 2010 and is “based on actual events,” and man, are we are continuously reminded of that. Writer/director Andrew Niccol never takes the film beyond a tiresome list of questions of morality, carefully bullet-pointed to address nearly every issue of our post-Sept. 11 world. Niccol is once again working with Ethan Hawke, who last appeared in Niccol’s much more interesting war satire Lord of War (2005). In this grimly serious look at warfare, Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, a frustrated Air Force pilot grounded in the Nevada desert as part of a team piloting a lethal drone over Afghanistan.

Instead of physically flying above his targets, Egan works out of an air-conditioned trailer. The effect for this former F-16 fighter pilot is profound on many levels. Working warfare 9 to 5 and returning home every night to a wife (January Jones) and two kids and a bottle of vodka under the bathroom sink cannot be good for this man’s mental stability. Also, there’s a psychological complexity to the circumstance of being an invisible, untouchable killer in the skies. “At 10,000 feet, even if she looked straight at us, she couldn’t see us,” whispers Egan to a colleague. But there’s another irony. As an F-16 pilot dropping bombs, he flew past targets he could barely see as humans. With drone technology, he can now virtually make out his targets’ faces and has time to spare to count the pieces of humanity left after a missile strike.

129483_ori

Niccol keeps the action on the pixellated boxes transmitted by the drone’s cameras, but it’s enough to feel the humanity half a world away. It’s about the horror of what these soldiers bear witness to from a distance. There’s a God complex with the fragility of humanity here. It’s a harsh burden to bear. It’s a strong point powerfully and simply made. They use language that speaks to the distance of their actions, when a missile hits in a startling cloud of smoke, a team member announces, “splash.” If it’s on target, Egan announces, “Good kill.” Over his shoulder, a moral voice comes from Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), who somberly intones, “They don’t call it hell fire for nothing.” But dialogue like that is also where problems arise. The script spends too much time focusing on informing the circumstances of this part of the War on Terror. Every single argument against drone warfare is not just on-screen but explicated to the audience over and over by the film’s protagonists.

Conscientiousness is raised a notch with the addition of Airman Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz) and M.I.C. Joseph Zimmer (Jake Abel) who join Egan on missions for the CIA, whose tactics are less concerned about collateral damage. “Did we just commit a war crime, sir?” Suarez asks the colonel with grim cynicism. Then it’s off to lunch. After an argument referencing Hamas, the disdain for the U.S. in countries like Afghanistan and Sept. 11, Zimmer walks away from the table calling Suarez “Jane Fonda.” ThZoe Kravitz (Vera Suarez) and Ethan Hawke (Tom Egan) in Andrew Niccol’s GOOD KILL. Courtesy of Lorey Sebastian. (C) 2014 Clear Skies Nevada LLC. An IFC Films release.ere’s only one way for them to get along better, as suggested by Suarez: a night out in Vegas. This is one of those small details that needs a strong actor to pull off. But Kravitz has yet to rise above her status as the descendant of a more famous person. Though she gives a widely modulated performance, she does not meld the character shifts demanded of her. After an ethically circumspect mission, she allows a single tear to roll down her cheek, while she assesses the aftermath. Later that night, she gets close and flirty with Egan. It’s classic Eros and Thanatos and totally conceivable, but the way Kravitz plays it, Suarez feels like two characters instead of two sides of the same person.

From his anguished relationship with his wife to his anxiety at his job, there is little ambiguity that Thomas is unhappy with his life. Hawke’s character has little space to develop, but he does tap into the humanity of Egan below is discontent. He most genuinely reveals himself in his shaky countdowns to firing the missile trigger. If he’s hard to read at times, it’s because he does “look miles away,” a phrase his wife Molly, ably played by Jones, uses more than once. The only time he flies is in his dreams. Hawke morosely channels the misery of a fighter pilot who has had his wings clipped.

January Jones (Molly Egan) and Ethan Hawke (Tom Egan) in Andrew Niccol’s GOOD KILL. Courtesy of Lorey Sebastian. (C) 2014 Clear Skies Nevada LLC. An IFC Films release.

The idea of exploring drone strikes as an action movie is commendable, but the script by Niccol is overstuffed with crutches that compromise its stakes. The film has excellent ideas. The best of which is how focused the movie is on domestic malaise and the idea of “distance” from war atrocities that might compromise a man’s moral compass.Though Niccol makes the right move visually by keeping to the POV of the drone pilots, he seems just as trapped as they are in executing the movie. Niccol just doesn’t seem to figure out or trust what he can do with action. The filmmaker once showed great talent as a writer/director, but he has not delivered a strong movie since Lord of War, and his freshest, best work (Truman Show [1998] and Gattaca [1997]) remains far in his past. It feels a bit futile hoping for anything better from this writer/director.

I had some hope for Good Kill, but it just felt like a slog, unfortunately weighed down by too much exposition, heavy-handed if sometimes clumsy character development and a startling plot development at film’s end that unforgivably compromises its message. While some might misconstrue the film’s final scene as heroic, everything before it reveals the moment as a nadir with a mixed message that compromises any sympathy for the film’s main character. It could have swung in two different ways and plays with suspense in an almost trivial, manipulative manner, cheapening the film’s tone. Unfortunately, it goes the way of catharsis for all the wrong reasons and ultimately compromises the film’s message. The moral questions become heightened in a way that feels disingenuous and more concerned with pleasing the crowd above exploring what justice means in war. It feels like a big cop-out disguised as open-ended finale.

Hans Morgenstern

Good Kill runs 103 minutes and is rated R (expect disturbing images at a distance, cursing and I&I — “Intoxication and Intercourse,” as Lt. Colonel Jack Johns explains it). It opened this Friday, May 22, in our Miami area at MDC’s Tower Theater and the Cosford Cinema and in Broward at  both Cinema Paradiso Hollywood and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. It’s also now on VOD. IFC provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. All images in this review are also courtesy of IFC.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

MM-Main-PosterMad Max: Fury Road is a thrilling ride set in a post-apocalyptic world where the main ruler has centralized all resources. The new world is a top-down patriarchy where water, plants and even women and men are resources controlled and owned by a ruthless authoritarian version of Methuselah called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who has also propelled himself by conveying a myth of eternal existence to his followers. Indeed, the regime at the Citadel is a strange combination of religious fanaticism, top-down control, private ownership of natural resources, and a cult-like militarized core of supporters who are mostly male.

The population at the Citadel also embody extremes; Immortan Joe’s army and the main inhabitants of the Citadel are pale white mutant warriors who need blood transfusions to function and exist as devout cannon fodder for their ruler/father figure. They run the Citadel through violence and manage a host of slaves who seem to have been plucked from other territories. Among these characters, women seem relegated (surprise, surprise) either as nursing machines or as “breeders,” a group of beautiful young women, who function as Immortan Joe’s wives. Among the inhabitants of the Citadel, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) stands out; a fighter and leader in her own right, she has a mechanical arm and is entrusted by Immortan to collect fuel for the city though she longs to return to her mythical homeland.

MadMax2

The main action of Mad Max: Fury Road is set in motion when Furiosa escapes and takes the five wives with her only to be soon found out by Immortan Joe. A chase ensues, involving the army from the Citadel that includes a host of vehicles souped up with skulls, spikes, chrome and real flames. The decadence of despot, Joe is acutely visible when one of the trucks in the caravan is solely dedicated to a group of drummers led by a punk/goth guitar player dressed in a skin-tight red outfit who rides at the front with a barrage of speakers at his back. The guns and violence launched at Furiosa are straight out of a nightmare world. Yet her steady resolution to find redemption and her hometown are enough to keep her going.

Furiosa also happens to have taken Joe’s wives with her, including a pregnant Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz) and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton). Max (Tom Hardy) ends up tied to the fate of the female group as he seeks to escape the Citadel where he has been turned into a highly coveted Type O negative human blood bag. He has even been named “Blood Bag” by Nux (Nicholas Hoult) a warrior from the Citadel who has strapped him to the front of his car as a human hood ornament, so he might join the pursuit in the middle of his transfusion. At first interested only in his own survival, Max, who enters the story struggling with his own existential demons as seen in violent flashbacks, comes to find that Furiosa’s journey is one he can subscribe to.

MadMax3

The violence around and directed towards the six women is palpable, and although early in the film, their frailty seems to convince the audience that this chase will be over soon, their refusal to take part in the system that never worked for them gives them strength. These are complex female characters — not a small feat for an action film. For example, Splendid Angharad jumps out of the moving freight car as Immortan and his army close-in on them, in a display that surprises Max but that Furiosa seems to accept, as if she knew all along it was there.

The entire ride shows different forms of violence, from the visceral, directly aimed at the women as physical harm, to psychological control. The next point might be considered a spoiler, but it bares mentioning to speak to the intelligent quality of the film’s story. The caravan ends up meeting Furiosa’s ancestors, a group of women who used to thrive before Immortan’s rule. They provide an alternative view of the world for the women and in doing so set in motion the second half of the film, just as filled with action, only this time the group of women have turned around, facing their predators head-on. Via yet another profound plot-twist (and anyone telling you this film is just an extended chase and has no plot is not paying attention), the film makes a strong point that I have only heard from feminists before, the alternative view that fraternity and equality are far superior to patriarchy. In other words, feminism does not equate to man-hating, but it’s an alternative that can only be understood as a partnership. All this in the midst of fire, action sequences, and total vehicular mayhem.

Mad Max: Fury Road is the most recent iteration of the franchise from director George Miller, who previously directed Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). The latest iteration shows his ease with the post-apocalyptic landscape and a deep understanding of presenting the high stakes in this world juxtaposed with high-paced entertainment. Although Miller has waited a long time to retake the franchise, one could say that he has perfected some of the elements of the post-apocalyptic world. The barren desert landscapes, the kinetically edited fast-moving shots that rely more on stunt work instead of digital effects — many presented in amazing widescreen, and his depiction of courage among the “wives” who are permanently in danger, are some of the many elements that will keep you from blinking for the two hours this movie runs.

Ana Morgenstern

Mad Max: Fury Road runs 120 minutes and is Rated R (it’s violent, for the most part). It opens everywhere in theaters on May 15. For theaters near you, enter your zip code here. For worldwide release dates click here. Warner Bros. invited us to a preview screening Tuesday night for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

321339_10151418354765081_1000988295_n

Day 2 of the Miami International Film Festival provided the experience I was looking forward to most about the 30th edition of this event: an intimate experience with the world of cinema. It began with a riveting discussion on the state of film criticism by some the industry’s busiest film critics in the US, and ended with two screenings at the Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami. One of the films was a world premiere, the other the latest from one of Denmark’s most vital filmmakers second only to Lars von Trier.

The day began at the Miami Beach Cinematheque where an audience of some of the more hardcore film attendees sat rapt for almost two hours, as four of the U.S.’s more influential film critics discussed their industry. They included:

David Edelstein (“New York Magazine,” NPR’s “Fresh Air” and “CBS Sunday Morning” [my favorite morning TV news show around])

Leah Rozen (“The Wrap,” “People Magazine”)

Claudia Puig (“USA Today”)

Kim Voynar (“Movie City News,” “Cinematical”).

Led by Miami’s Dan Hudak (“Hudak on Hollywood,” WLRN and chairman of the Florida Film Critics Circle), who could barely get a word in edgewise, it only took a few questions to get a variety of views from a group of people wired for discourse. Edelstein was the more contrarian of the bunch, which kept the conversation nice and dynamic. He pushed the basic tenet for anyone who wants to write film criticism: “Write and write and write and re-write and read everything.”

Critics panel at the Miami International Film Festival. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

Puig noted anyone who wants to write about film should “get a life.” Though her advice may seem condescending at face value, she elaborated on the wit loaded in her comment. Criticism is a lonely business, but it must also be a well-informed business that comes from the school of life.

Rozen illuminated Puig’s point by adding film students should consider double majoring in things outside of film school, including the social sciences like political science or anthropology (I would add psychology and literature, where my experience also stems from).

Voynar, the youngest of the group, addressed the concern of many trying their hand at this game: money. This is not a passion to follow for money, and aspiring critics need to expect to write for free. Film criticism is about a passion for an art that trumps any desire for making money. If cinema is a true wholehearted interest of any writer, money will come. But going around demanding and asking for it will get you ignored fast.

That was only the start of a discussion that enforced some of my own views on film writing, including a studious desire “to watch films analytically,” according to Rozen. All agreed what a waste of time writers are who summarize films and provide little to no insight into the craft, a rookie mistake of many aspiring film writers.

I think I most learned from Edelstein who spoke about his own struggles with finding his voice. He began by indulging in all first person, reactionary pieces to distant John Updike-like observational.  I tend toward the latter, which made me feel as though I still have something to learn. I was relieved to hear some constructive advice that proves my theory that, as a writer, one never masters writing but always strives to master it.

Finally, they defended bloggers such as I. At the end of the panel, an audience member asked a question deriding the seeming self-appointed nature of bloggers. They all agreed that though the blogosphere is full of clear amateurs who are not hard to spot, it has some voices that rival their own peers. “Some are absolutely amazing and do it for love,” one of them said.

After this most stimulating panel (already this post is too long), it was off to a happy hour at the festival’s official hotel, the Standard. The hotel bar was filled with so many people I should have known but hardly recognized, as I have this inherit problem with names and faces and no interest in the celebrity game. I wound up chatting with Edelstein some more and Canadian actor/director Don McKellar (sheesh, just noticed he played Yevgeny Nourish in Cronenberg’s masterpiece eXistenZ). I also met Puig there who ended up being my movie date for both screenings that night. On the way to the Olympia theater in Downtown Miami, I saw her outside waiting for a van she might have missed, so I offered her a ride.

theboy

The first movie we saw was the world premiere of the Boy Who Smells Like Fish, a film I was drawn to because I know someone who has the disease trimethylaminuria. The film, which also features McKellar, by first-time director Analeine Cal y Mayor approached the disease with a sense of humor that reached for Wes Anderson heights of quirk. Featuring Douglas Smith and Zoë Kravitz (daughter of Lenny), the film came from a sincere place, but the script, co-written by Cal y Mayor and Javier Gullón, both from Spain, was uneven and at times contrived. Kravitz gave it her sincere best, and the movie worked when it embraced its silly side most unabashedly. Conjuring up the long-lost Mexican singing “legend” Guillermo Garibai (a happy-go-lucky “most intereting man” performance by Gonzalo Vega) to give advice for the sad-sack titular boy (a passionless Smith), almost rescues the film. Hiwever, it arrives too late into the movie, which mostly dwells on the boy’s morose suffering.

Much of the cast and crew from Spain and Canada (plus actress Carrie-Anne Moss who has a part) were present for the screening. The applause was kind, but no standing ovation. Director Cal Y Mayor was forgotten at the film’s introduction by the film’s producer, Niv Fichman, and she admitted her nervousness about the film’s reception. She was sweet, and I hope the film works for her in some way, but judging from the night, the battle seems quite steep for this film to gain any attention at future screenings.

Some of the cast of the Boy Who Smells Like Fish at the Miami International Film Festival. Photo by Hans Morgenstern.

Lackluster films only serve to enhance anything that follows, and that happened during the second film of the night: Thomas Vinterberg’s the Hunt. The way cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen shot the children, so key to the film’s plot, even stood above the night’s previous film.

Vinterberg, who co-wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm  proved himself a director comfortably in tune with his craft. The film, which stars Mads Mikkelsen, who won best actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his performance as Lucas, is a rather cruel play on dramatic irony. After a child’s fib goes viral among the inhabitants of Danish small town, Lucas becomes the target of a witch hunt.

As one can expect from the director who made a name for himself with the Celebration, the film becomes a brutal rollercoaster of victimization with the audiences’ sympathy clearly placed on Lucas’ shoulders. THE HUNT_Photo by Per Arnesen 3It’s a brilliant piece of emotional manipulation that will hopefully enhance one’s own awareness to rash judgments of those accused and persecuted solely based around the horror of the crime they are alleged to have committed.

The Hunt ends on an ambiguous note that encourages discussion. We wound up standing outside the Olympia with several other local cinema enthusiasts, including a pair of my colleagues in local cinema criticism: FFCC member Reuben Pereira and the Hialeah Examiner’s Steve Mesa. Despite it being a cold night in the low 50s, we stood outdoors considering the film’s theme, approach and performances for some time.

Next post: a preview of Day 3, for which I have some more interesting published preview writing to share…

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)