Tag Archives: 4 stars

Way late review: The Thin Blue Line


We can thank Errol Morris for a couple of things in his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. First, he successfully exposed some serious flaws in a criminal case which resulted in the death sentence of Randall Adams in Dallas in 1976. His work helped correct this egregious wrong and freed an innocent man from life in prison. Second, we can thank the filmmaker for the proliferation of crime reenactments used ad nauseam by true crime television shows. You gain some, you lose some.

Randall Adams ran out of gas one day and hitched a ride with David Harris. As Adams pointed out, he’s not sure what would’ve happened had he not ran out of gas. What if David Harris wasn’t around? What if Adams refused the ride? His life may have been a lot different as it wasn’t long before Adams found himself in a police station being questioned for the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. The officer had been shot numerous times after a routine traffic stop and Adams was said to be the shooter. The real shooter was actually the teenager, David Harris, but the police department and the DA’s office put together a case which pinned the blame on Adams. Harris, being the stand out guy he proved to be, had no problem blaming Adams. After all, Harris was previously bragging about killing a cop, only to take back those statements once the police caught up with him.

Morris’ filmmaking is groundbreaking in a number of ways. First, he reconstructs the events based on testimonies we see on screen. The accompanied reenactments are commonplace today but back then it was controversial. Documentaries can’t do that. They can only show what is captured; at least that was the thinking at the time until Morris punched critics and viewers in the gut by not only using reenactments but using them extensively throughout the 100 minute film. The interviews are shot straight on, with most subjects sitting dead center in the screen and staring down the camera, which was unheard of at the time and still not considered a best practice for interviews. Finally, the soundtrack by Phillip Glass is stylish, unlike those typically used previously for documentaries; especially those dealing with such serious matters.

The interviews are engaging enough but don’t pickup until some of the questionable witnesses make an appearance. Laughter ensues as one woman says she’s always witnessing killings and has a keen eye for such things. Her husband is almost as odd. Turns out the two have a shaky track record for telling the truth. At least one other witness comes on and we discover he’s confident he can identify Adams as the killer but then later learn that he couldn’t see much of anything and was trying to cover up his passenger, a girlfriend his wife wouldn’t be happy to hear about.

With no shortage of reenactments and non-stop interviews, keeping track of all the details becomes a little harrowing. Errol Morris will never be accused of not paying enough attention to detail. This does does not always make for great storytelling though. By the time the film ends it feels as though you’ve consumed enough information to personally prosecute the case against Harris and defend Adams.

The Thin Blue Line will likely be remembered as much for its groundbreaking approach to documentary film making as it will for helping free an innocent man from life in prison. Watching it nearly 25 years since its release makes you appreciate how much of an impact this film has had on documentaries since – quite an achievement.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: War Horse


The true gritty World War I tale of a horse who takes on Germany and saves the day. War Horse is like Saving Private Ryan mixed with Platoon, except with a horse saving the day. OK, maybe not. Maybe it’s an overtly sentimental tale of a horse who magically makes it through WWI while impacting the lives of those on both sides of the first world war.

Steven Spielberg is a filmmaking genius not without his faults. One of those faults is his tendency to turn the sentimental faucet on full blast even though it may drown the audience. Then again, the story this time around probably justifies the treatment. Saying War Horse is too sentimental is like saying Forrest Gump was too unrealistic. Both are fairy tales and they revolve around main characters who we may find hard to believe in their setting and impact but that’s part of what makes fairy tales what they are. Of course, Forrest Gump had Tom Hanks and War Horse has a ummm…Joey, the horse, as its leading “man”.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is an English teen whose former war hero dad foolishly bids too much and wins the auction for a thoroughbred horse. The family needs a work horse and dad brings home a racing horse. Dad may have been slightly influenced by the alcohol continually filling his bloodstream and his desire to stick it to his landlord who he was bidding against. From there a familiar story is told where Albert and Joey bond and the impossible happens. Then the war breaks out and Albert’s dad is forced to put Joey up for sale. Despite Albert’s pleas, Joey is sold to an English officer who is heading out to the battlefield. End first act, end Joey, enter War Horse, a horse who endures the worst and keeps clip clopping along.

The cinematography and sweeping soundtrack is what drives War Horse. The story is entertaining enough but the unique shots of war and the sights around it are amazing. The scene of the infantry of men on their horses racing through the tall grass in a sneak attack on their enemies is unlike any I’ve seen before. The colors and look of the film overall is different than Spielberg’s films of the past. They are brighter and more vibrant even though the setting couldn’t be more dreary. Joey races across the battlefield at night and the camera follows the frantic pace from a unique perspective which wouldn’t make sense in a traditional war film centered on the human characters.

Those who complain War Horse is nothing but sentimental drip seem to miss the fact that this is not a tale about war, the people in it, the people impacted by it. It’s about a horse and his incredible journey through a war torn land. Those looking for the second coming of Saving Private Ryan need to look elsewhere. War Horse is a fairy tale driven by beautiful sights and triumphant sounds, and sometimes that’s enough to make a really good film.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Damsels in Distress


Whit Stillman makes movies you either love or hate. His fascination with telling stories about yuppies tends to have that reaction. I generally enjoy his films. They portray characters and a world very few do. Twelve years later, Stillman makes a new film Damsels in Distress, and while the characters speak the instantly identifiable Stillman dialogue, something has changed. Something funny. Pure satire in a world unlike those the director has created in past films.

Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her two friends, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), at Seven Oaks college are out to save the world. OK, maybe not the world, but definitely their boorish male counterparts and those deemed suicidal risks. Violet immediately targets Lily (Analeigh Tipton) as a new student in need of intervention. Lily isn’t a freshman as Violet guessed. She’s a sophomore transfer. She, unlike Violet’s entourage, doesn’t completely buy into the mission the trio is on. When the new foursome walks around the campus together for the first time the original trio nearly pass out from the supposed stench produced by a group of guys who walk by. Rose looks as though she may regurgitate her last meal. Lily is perplexed. Violet explains that Rose is especially sensitive to odors and the boys from a certain house are particularly odorous. In pity, Violet condescendingly sees it as her duty to reform these boys. No handsome and winsome young men for these young ladies. They’ll take the dufus who has yet learned his primary colors, thank you very much. And they’ll do this all in the name of saving a lower class; pulling them up from the depths to the heights of at least middling acceptably. The exaggerated attitude and actions pokes fun at both liberals doing more harm than good while they save the poor they wouldn’t want near their precious suburban homes or Evangelical Christians who have a disdain for the heathens they attempt to clean up and save from a life of sin.

There is little to no narrative holding Damsels together. Lily’s first year at Seven Oaks is filled with odds and ends. She provides a dose of reality in most scenes lacking everything but reality. Yet even Lily isn’t completely exempt from serving as a prop in Whitman’s satirical take on life at one of the oddest colleges in cinema history. She finds the wrong guys. Instead of dumb brutes she dates men of higher intellect who are anything but honorable. One is an eight year student posing as a successful young professional while another is an international student whose religion supposedly holds to a sexual “purity” that is anything but.

The suicide prevention center Violet heads up gives donuts to those in need of help. Don’t dare take a donut if you are not a candidate though. Donuts are for suicidal risks only. Violet promised the company providing the donuts that all the donations would go to those needing them, not those simply out to get a free pastry. Things get stranger. The preferred method of therapy is dancing. In fact, it’s the only thing resembling therapy of any sort. All other displays of help are in the form of interrogating potential “patients”, ensuring they are worthy of free doughnuts and dance sessions. If this sounds ridiculous and silly, it is. It is also very funny, as long as you don’t completely hate the characters and the world they inhibit. The arrogant, obnoxious girls and the dumb boys they seek to refine require buy-in or else Damsels will feel like a slog.

Debbie: You think I’m going to kill myself and make you look bad?
Violet: I’m worried that you’ll kill yourself and make yourself look bad.

Title cards split up the movie into sections not unlike a silent film or an episode of Frasier. The technique mostly works until the end when the movie overruns its optimal time and the title cards serve as reminders that the credits should be rolling. All good things must come to an end, some should come a little earlier than others.

Whit Stillman makes a welcome return after nearly a dozen years since his last film. Damsels in Distress is a witty comedy with commentary on a variety of topics but never heavy handed. The laughs come along with a satirical backdrop and characters to match. Not everyone’s cup of tea but possibly a surprise for those who haven’t enjoyed Stillman’s past films. Damsels was a pleasant surprise for me.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: The Grey


Based on how some (many?) would describe The Grey, it was all about Liam Neeson punching some wolves in the face. When did Liam Neeson become 80’s circa Sylvester Stallone? I remember him most for his roles in Schindler’s List, Michael Collins, and Rob Roy. Certainly it’s the 2000’s where Neeson’s name becomes associated with big action with little brains. The Grey is a little more intelligent and nuanced than his action films of late. In other words, there is more to it than awesome action set pieces and our favorite Irish tough guy bashing in the brains of monster wolves.

Some rough and tumble guys make a living drilling for oil in Alaska. John Ottway (Liam Neeson) has the honor of protecting them from wolves. He uses a rifle to pick off the predators before the canines pick off the men. The team sets off for a new job on a flight. The ride goes from rough to tragic and crashes into the Alaskan wilderness. Seven men survive only to find themselves in a new battle for their lives. They’re being hunted by a pack of wolves whose territory they’ve intruded on. To call these animals “wolves” is like calling a T-Rex “Barney”. These wolves are on the Barry Bonds training program. In fact, Barry Bonds would likely advise these wolves to lay off the PEDs.

Ottway is the leader. While most of the others either suffer from trauma or varying degrees of immaturity, Ottway rounds up the troops and provides direction. One slight problem. Ottway was only moments away from ending his own life before making this trip. He is haunted by the loss of his wife. Now, thrust in the midst of a near death experience, the wolf hunter finds himself fighting for life – his and those around him.

Jump scares are plentiful. The sounds of wolf attacks are as brutal as anything actually shown. The dire situation makes for a non-stop survival thriller. And yet, in the quieter moments the thoughts about nearing death seeps in. The quip that there are no atheists in a fox hole doesn’t play out in The Grey. We don’t get to know the men alongside Ottway all that well, but we find that most cling to what they see and experience. There are moments where faith in a creator are displayed or called into question – or both at the same time; but the bulk of the men come back clinging to the observation made in the very book most of them mock: eat, drink and be merry. Of course, there is little to be merry about while ravenous wolves track your every footstep. There is no rest for these men. Death is inevitable for all, but for these men it feels inevitably close.

More than a wilderness survival thriller, The Grey takes the sub-genre and contemplates the biggest moment in all our lives – the end. There are no answers provided, no sermons preached. The men examine what matters most to them and often come up with little. Their fight against the odds is compelling. And, yes, you get to see Liam Neeson punch a wolf in the face.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Footnote


When a son walks in his father’s footsteps it can be a point of pride or sadness for the father. Depending on whether the father is satisfied with his own life dictates his reaction to his son following in his footsteps. But what about the father who is proud of his accomplishments and has a son who not only follows in his footsteps but eclipses his accomplishments? And what happens to their relationship when all of a sudden the father receives an award the son covets? Enter Footnote.

Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) researches the Talmud. Scratch that. He picks through every version and copy he can get his hands in an obsessive compulsive manner in the name of scholarship. He dives into the minutia of ancient texts and rarely comes up for air. His son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), is a professor at the same university in Jerusalem but his studies are more popular, well received, and recognized. Eliezer is bitter of his son’s fame and respect by the community they’re both a part of. He even goes as far as to ridicule their academic community as a way to make himself feel better about never receiving the accolades he feels he’s earned. Uriel does his best to placate his dad by giving him credit at acceptance speeches and elsewhere. This only embitters Eliezer all the more. He doesn’t like being patronized.

A bitter father and son relationship does not sound like comedy gold yet the story is told with much wit. The music sets the tone early as a classical comedic soundtrack. Even the sour faces Eliezer makes are funny as everyone around him celebrates his son’s accomplishments. His disheveled look among the well dressed awards crowd is meant for laughs, as Eliezer is denied access back into the event while numerous other more finely dressed participants stroll through the door. Not even security is buying Elizer as anything but an old man who wants to cause trouble.

The one sided bitterness changes quickly once Eliezer gets a call telling him he’s being awarded the Israel Prize, the one prize alluding Eliezer for the past twenty years. He finally obtains it and in a moment the tables are turned. The son is back at the footstool of the father. The same father who would only begrudgingly acknowledge his son’s work, let alone achievements. If this was the entire story it would be an entertaining look at how the relationship evolves between these two men whose lives revolve around a religious text neither appears to have fully grasped. However, there is a major twist which causes awkward conversations and difficult decisions. Once this twist occurs, the film shifts suddenly from light comedic fodder to a darker introspective piece. It’s as if two films were smashed together, both very good but also very different.

Great performances and an intriguing story of a father-son relationship carry Footnote through a first half which provides many laughs and a second half which expresses the deep hurt a long and painful father and son journey inevitably delivers. An original film told in an originally, if not jarring manner. Refreshing.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.