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Act of Valor: Propaganda for the US Navy in the Form of an Action Film
Don’t let the packaging fool you, Act of Valor is a recruitment video and a propaganda piece for the US Navy; not the benign slice of entertainment it makes itself out to be. For one, the film’s cast is made up of a mix of actors and real life Navy SEALs and while it makes for a cool gimmick – real life action heroes and all that – it just makes the propaganda feel that much more potent. On the whole the actors are pretty decent however they lack comfort in front of the camera. Their lines are kind of stilted, not enough to ruin the film but enough to prevent you from connecting with the characters.
The film deals heavily in clichés, the biggest of which being its choice of villains. It ingeniously lumps together America’s two biggest threats historically - Russians and Islamic ‘Jihadists’- giving us two bad guys; a Russian drug dealer name Christo (Veadov), who isn’t above murdering children; and Shabal (Cottle), his childhood friend who converted to Islam and promptly became an Al Qaida type of terrorist. And just to balance out the scales, the lead is also a complete cliché. He’s a goodhearted Caucasian, with a pregnant wife, whose idea of having a good time is hanging out on the beach surfing with his Navy SEAL buddies and their families.
The film milks his situation for all it’s worth; focusing on the fact that he’s protecting his country despite the danger involved and despite the fact that he may never see his unborn child. It’s a noble sentiment but not when it’s forced down your throat and not when it’s in such a biased context. The film is so out of touch with reality that during an interrogation scene, the US commander promises Christo that if he doesn’t cooperate, he’d be locked up but not harmed physically. His only punishment would supposedly be missing out on his wife and daughter’s lives. While we weren’t expecting the film to portray the evils of the American military system, a little nuance of the truth would’ve been nice.
On the bright side, the film has some pretty decent action scenes which make up most of the story. The film’s basic setup revolves around retrieving a kidnapped CIA agent who uncovered the link between Christo and Shabal. Once they get her back, they discover that the duo are smuggling a gang of suicide bombers into the US, wearing high tech explosive vests that can pass through metal detectors without setting off the alarm. Their mission evolves into finding and preventing the gang from entering the US and setting off a national hysteria reminiscent of 9/11. While there’s a ton of the usual gunfights and stakeouts, if the film’s portrayal of the Navy SEALs’ activities is anything to go by, skydiving is apparently an integral part of their lives and it honestly looks pretty sweet. The action sequences are full of close ups and over the shoulder shots designed to make it feel more real and, for the most part, it succeeds.
Despite the decent action sequences, it’s impossible to ignore or overlook the film’s politics. In this era of the ‘War on Terror’ you just can’t get away with things that are blatantly untrue. It’s quite unsettling; the film rewrites history and glorifies war to a completely unacceptable degree.
Known for his unique voice and understated approach to telling a story, writer-director, Jeff Nichols – see Take Shelter, Mud – returns with yet another distinctive and beautifully crafted tale of parenthood and faith in the undeniably special, Midnight Special.
The film tells the story of Roy (the always present and the always game Mr. Michael Shannon) who - together with his childhood friend Lucas (Edgerton) - has kidnapped his biological son, Alton (Lieberher), from a creepy cult run by Alton’s ‘adoptive’ father Calvin Meyer (Shepherd).
Where they are going is seemingly unclear but, what we do learn is that Alton – who spends most of the time wearing blue swimming goggles – is no ordinary child and that he possesses certain supernatural abilities that has not only drawn the attention of Meyer’s cult – who believe that Alton is their saviour – but that of the government as well.
Out on the run from seemingly everyone, Roy – who soon reaches out to Alton’s mother Sarah (Dunst) for the much-needed support - is willing and ready to do just about anything to keep his boy from harm which, naturally, only ends up putting them all against a number of obstacles and a great deal of danger along the way.
To truly and fully experience Nichols’ latest film, is to try and go in knowing as little as possible about the plot; the less you know, the bigger the impact. Staying one step ahead of the audience, the mysteries surrounding the story are gradually revealed, with Nichols making sure that all of his secrets and relevant story threads are exposed in their own time, ultimately providing the film with a quietly intensifying and slow-burning energy which is hard to shake off.
Gorgeously photographed, the mood and the atmosphere – which are supported by David Wingo’s hauntingly beautiful John Carpenter-esque musical score – is almost palpable, while the story’s 80’s retro setting – reminiscent of movies like E.T and Deep Impact – is beautifully captured and made relevant to the audiences of today. On the downside, however, some of the story threads could have done with a bit more exploration and had they had a bit more onscreen involvement, they could have carried a slightly deeper effect.
Marking his fourth collaboration with the talented director, Michael Shannon – quite possibly one of the most compelling actors working today – gives yet another all-in performance of a troubled father. Meanwhile, Lieberher shows great versatility for such a young actor, whilst Edgerton and Dunst are both complex and rooted in their respective performances.
Captivating and emotional, Nichols’ Midnight Special is an easy recommendation; a thoughtfully executed and a powerfully told sci-fi tale which uses on its wonderfully created visuals and unspoken words to convey its story.
There’s a certain draw to the idea of watching George Clooney and his real-life gal-pal Julia Roberts together on-screen. The duo’s fourth movie together, after Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, comes in the form of director Jodie Foster’s fourth-feature-film, Money Monster; an intriguing but seemingly cheesy and off-balance financial thriller which, despite its brief moments of genuine tension and topical subject, feels empty and somewhat even outdated in its storytelling.
The film tells of Lee Gates (Clooney); a flamboyant TV host of a financial show called ‘Money Monster’ where he provides advice to his viewers on how, where and when to invest their money. Gates has earned quite a bit of success in doing what he does, though his long-time producer, Patty Fenn (Roberts), is deserving of most of the credit.
Things take a turn, however, when IBIS Global Capital's stock takes a tumbling dive and results in an $800 million loss for its investors - a day after Gates advises viewers to invest. The studio is then taken hostage during a live broadcast by one seemingly irate and explosives-strapped investor, Kyle Budwell (O’Connell), who has lost his entire life savings and blames Gates.
One of the most disappointing things about Money Monster is how predictable it all feels with its socio-political commentary. Attempting to depict the ugly face of Wall Street, the subject is a topical one, yes, but has been covered much more affectively with recent films such as The Big Short and 99 Homes. Adding very little understanding or insight into its subject, Foster keeps things relatively tight in the first half, only to lose focus and complete control in the second when the plot swerves off-course into moments of complete implausibility, as the Julia Roberts’ Patty figures that the only way to diffuse the hostage situation is to go digging into IBIS, to provide an explanation to the hostage taker.
However, Clooney and Roberts share an easy chemistry and seem very much at home with their respective roles, with the former offering just enough charisma as the media pinhead with a heart of gold and Roberts keeping things grounded as his steadfast producer and friend. O’Connell, dubious New York accent aside, is equally convincing, however, the solid performances make little difference. Money Monster is just too contrived, uninvolving and one-dimensional.