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  • To search for a review, click the three bold horizontal lines near the upper left corner.  In the search box, enter the movie’s title, or director, or screenwriter, or principal actor, or opening date, or even a key word.  Reviews by Harvey Karten are from select movies from February 2017 to the present.

MAMMA MIA!HERE WE GO AGAIN – movie reveiw

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN

Universal Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ol Parker
Screenwriter: Ol Parker, Richard Curtis from a story by Ol Parker, Richard Curtis, Catherine Johnson
Cast: Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Dominic Cooper, Cher, Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Andy Garcia, Stellan Skarsgård
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 7/16/18
Opens: July 20, 2018

Man it’s hot! What are you going to do about it? You’ll go to Coney Island beach and look forward to your Nathan’s hot dog and fries? You don’t mind water that’s polluted, with plastic bags on the beach and not much to do with your time but read “The President is Missing”? Maybe you’d be better off on a Greek island; water clear as crystal, pristine white sands, snacking on Yiaourti me meli and Ekmek kataifi! And you won’t be reading a thick book but would instead be dancing like there’s no tomorrow, and given the present administration in Washington, fill in the blanks. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” a follow-up to the 2008 musical which began as a stage play in 1999, was filmed in Vis, Croatia, where Croatians and foreign travelers might ferry when they get tired of the commercialism of Split and Dubrovnik, also in Croatia.

In the story, the folks—mostly young, handsome and energetic with a few past their prime similarly energetic—are on the (fictitious) Greek island of Kalokairi. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant via her relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper). She can’t stop thinking of her departed mother Donna (Meryl Streep) and vows to run the hotel as she would have wanted her to. She will learn more about her mother from Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), particularly about how she had three dads Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Colin Firth), all of whom seem deliberately to avoid DNA tests because they love to be together with one another and with the youthful Sophie.

The movie is a mess but a delightful one, full of dancing and singing, a joyful reminder that as Donna (Lily James) notes, life is short. The movie is loaded with ABBA songs, eighteen of ‘em, a few slow and mournful but the bulk rousing and accompanied by superbly choreographed dancing—and I don’t mean tangos, fox trots and what passes for Terpsichore at weddings and bar mitzvahs, but Dionysian revelry that might make moviegoers wonder why they too seem to know intellectually that life is short but are unable or unwilling to act upon it.

Some scenes are standouts, particularly the opening, which zooms in on a college graduation that you wish you had instead of the one you attended to find out that life’s conquests await you. As Donna gives her valedictory address, she flings off her cap and gown ushering in the first sign that this movie is campy. The graduates join her and even the prune-looking vice chancellor (Celia Imrie) joins in. Later you watch the customers in a bar get up and dance, throwing down the tables, climbing on the bar, you know what’s in store for the rest of the action.

The songs from ABBA’s repertory are highlighted by the 1975 “Mamma Mia” sung originally by Donna and the Dynamos, and the whole cast join in with “Super Trouper”—Ruby, Donna, Rosie, Tanya, Sophie, Sky, Sam Bill, Harry, Fernando, Donna, Rosie, Tanya, Bill Sam and Harry.

If you’ve gone to musicals for a long time, you’re probably agreeing that they don’t make ‘em like they used to, which is why Broadway has endless recreations of “My Fair Lady,” “South Pacific” and “The Music Man.” These are musicals with stories to tell, morals to provide, all realistic within their fantasy. While “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” has no real purpose other than the fragile one about a young woman’s wanting to honor her departed mother’s dream of continuing the island hotel, it’s a lot of fun. And for that—to quote Senator Rand Paul’s statement on July 16th about Trump’s appearance with Putin in Helsinki—you’ve got to cut [him] some slack.

Lily James takes on the starring roll—as her character Donna would say based on her three one-night stands with different hunks—with passion. She is beautiful as well, which helps if you’re a star in a musical, and has emerged from roles like “Cinderella,” but this latest movie has little in common with her starring act in “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” (A writer forms an unexpected bond with the residents of Guernsey Island in the aftermath of World War II). Meryl Streep appears in a cameo toward the conclusion but campiness reaches its apotheosis with the arrival of Cher in the role of Sophie’s grandmother, her skin clear as a baby’s.

Ol Parker directs against expectations since we know him for his film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” about British retirees traveling to India to what they expect to be a remodeled hotel but find that while it is not as advertised, its charm compensates.

Rated PG-13. 114 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B

DAMASCUS COVER – movie review

DAMASCUS COVER

Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Daniel Zelik Berk
Screenwriter:  Daniel Zelik Berk, Samantha Newton, from the novel by Howard Kaplan
Cast:  Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Olivia Thirlby, John Hurt, Jürgen Prochnow, Navid Negahban
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/8/18
Opens: July 20, 2018

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the role of Ari Ben-sion aka Hans Hoffmann is a stiff, his dialogue stilted, though perhaps the oversimplified
English in Howard Kaplan’s book from which the film is adapted is partly at fault.  Literary quality aside, Kaplan himself is no hunched-over author pecking away at a computer but a fellow a great deal more interesting than Ben-Sion.  Author Kaplan, a native of L.A., was sent at the age of 21 to the Soviet Union to smuggle a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm to London. He executed a similar plan on a second trip, got arrested in Ukraine and interrogated for two days there and two days in Moscow.  He has traveled through Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, his experiences giving him lots of background for his five novels, each of which, I would guess, is more interesting than Daniel Zelik Berk’s film.

“Damascus Cover” is Berk’s freshman entry into the full length feature media, one which may have given him enough experience to turn out better stuff in the years to come, though he may have come out ahead if the characters did not all speak English.  For example, Hans Hoffmann, the principal character’s spy name, is allegedly German but he speaks English even to a group of Germans who are being hosted in Syria’s capital.  Saraj (Navid Negahban), is a brutal head of the Syrian secret police, who bears a contemptuous grin most of the time even when questioning an Israeli spy as the movie opens, then later as a guest in a home that includes Ben-Sion, who is pretending to be a German merchant in Syria to buy that country’s famous carpets.

As in the book, Ben-Sion has a weakness for women, as we see when he is virtually stalked by Kim (Olivia Thirlby) a journalist for USA Today newspaper who may be more than she appears.  There are a few standard-issue shoot-outs, a couple of fist fights that are of the usual ridiculously edited type so that you don’t know how is beating whom.  Though the Syrian authorities have become aware that Ben-Sion is an Israeli agent, sent by Miki (the late, great John Hurt), but give him a free hand in navigating Damascus because they’re sure he will lead them to a more important agent known as The Angel.

One role that’s more interesting than the others belongs to Igal Naor as General Fuad who believes that you can get more information from a captive by warmth and interest than by torture—a technique that by now some Americans, even Gina Haspel allegedly believe as well.  Faud states right out while interrogating a prisoner that he is different from Saraj, that Saraj has been “retired,” and ultimately has something to say about current relations between Syria and Israel that may seem difficult to believe but are probably on the money.

Chloë Tomson filmed this disjointed story in Casablanca, Morocco, which, with its narrow, intriguing alleyways and cobblestone sidewalks make the city a more interesting character than anyone in the picture.

Rated R.  93 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+
Acting – C-
Technical – B
Overall – C

IN HARMONY – movie review

IN HARMONY (En équilibre)

Icarus Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Denis Dercourt
Screenwriter: Denis Dercourt. Book by Bernard Sachsé.
Cast: Albert Dupontel, Cécile De France, Marie Bäumer, Patrick Mille, Antonin Gabrielli, Carole Franck
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/14/18
Opened: July 13, 2018 in an Icarus DVD

En équilibre Movie Poster

There are some things you’ll come away with whether or not you like the story as a whole. One is that beautiful women should never put their hair up in buns. Another is that you should not trust insurance companies, evil capitalists that they are. A third is that if you don’t feel that Liszt, in his Etude No. 12, expresses emotions that you and I are unable to put into words, you have no soul. Ultimately, “In Harmony” enjoys terrific performances from its two leads and though it deals with the truth story of a stunt rider paralyzed when he falls from a horse, it does not have the saccharine development you might expect if there were a Hollywood remake.

This makes for a welcome move by Icarus Films in making the movie available to us in the States via a DVD, a story that is warm, humorous, believable and romantic. The two leads are Albert Dupontel in the role of Marc Guermont and Belgian-born Cécile de France as Florence Kernel. Denis Dercourt wrote and directs in a film that is in his métier, as he is known for “The Page Turner,” about a young woman pianist who applies to a conservatory but is distracted and fails the exam. His “In Harmony” is likewise about a pianist, Florence Kernel, who used to practice for eight hours a day but for some reason gave up her studies and settled for being an insurance adjuster. Through her association with Marc, absorbing his dedication to dust himself off after he is paralyzed and ride again, she rethinks her life and real love for the piano and cannot help actually wishing to be fired from the company for which she works.

The story opens with pressure that Florence puts on Marc to sign a protocol for an insurance settlement, offering 250 euros, which he considers insufficient to last for a lifetime. He is advised later by an advocate, Carole Franck, to hold out and to take his chances in court for the one million euros he probably deserves, yet he wonders how he can survive even now without even the funds to continue paying for modifications on his farmhouse. Meanwhile, Florence is not the hardheaded person anyone would take her for given a hairdo that makes her look almost androgynous. Advised by an employee in the insurance company to be seductive, she puts down her blond hair, and wouldn’t you know: she develops romantic urges herself for her client!

This is based on the real life story of Bernard Sachsé whose book, Sur mes quatre jambes: Le livre qui a inspiré le film En équilibre (On My Four Legs: The Life that Inspired the Film In Harmony), available at Amazon. You can read the book in French and imagine the two characters but you can hardly do better in bringing the characters to life than Cécile de France and Albert Dupontel, the latter doing all his own stunt work. The horse named Othello is sadly uncredited in the cast but does quite a job at advanced tricks. Othello is trained by Marc and kept comfortable and happy by Marc’s helper Antoine (Antonin Gabrielli).

The film opened in France in April 2015 and in the U.S. in April 2016 but somehow passed under the radar with just a few reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Let’s hope Icarus’ DVD will revive interest in a clear, unsentimental look at one person’s adjustment to tragedy and another’s renascence of interest in the piano.

Unrated. 90 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B

SKYSCRAPER – movie review

SKYSCRAPER

Universal Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Screenwriter: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, Kevin Rankin, Roland Mueller, Byron Mann
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 7/9/18
Opens: July 13, 2018

Here we have yet another expensive movie that fits into the template of summer spectaculars but which is at bottom soulless, without genuine imagination, interesting performances, novelty, and twists and turns. When compared with others of the blockbuster entries like the “Die Hard” series and “Mission Impossible,” “Skyscraper” does not match up, as the movie is without humor or irony of any attribute that would give it momentum beyond a seemingly endless array of stunts. There are spectacular fires on a massive scale and attention paid to the usual accoutrements of thrillers, taking advantage of all the tricks and optics of a computer generation and the skills of teams of special effects engineers. And the film serves as well as a love letter to Hong Kong, which despite being part of China is regularly cited as by the Economic Freedom index as having the freest market economy in the world, just ahead of Singapore.
Nor does it dumb down the language. The Chinese participants speak Cantonese, with a billionaire builder wholly bilingual.

San Francisco-born Rawson Marshall Thurber, its screenwriter-director, has expanded his score quote a bit since his 2004 movie “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” about a group of misfits in a Las Vegas tournament, and more recently “Central Intelligence,” about an accountant lured into the world of espionage. Thurber opens with a dramatic scene: Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson), a decorated Marine and now an FBI agent, is in a hostage standoff with a big guy who is holding his kid in front of him to avoid surrendering or being shot by a group of agents with laser-beam rifles. The unexpected happens and Sawyer loses a leg which, ten years later, finds him married to Sarah Sawyer (Neve Campbell), a surgeon who sewed him up and fixed him with a high-tech artificial leg. Now with a wife and two kids living temporarily in the world’s tallest building (over 200 stories), he serves as principal security consultant on the edifice built by Chinese billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), using a face-identity tablet to make final checks on the structure’s security. This is where Thurber can take advantage of the usual graphics of multiple computer screens, lights that beam “open” or “closed,” and, sadly, a plot device that’s confusing. It appears that the bad guys, members of a syndicate with extortion plots around the world, seek to take a gadget from Zhao, one which exposes the locations and puts his syndicate in jeopardy.

Why they have to start a fire on a high floor is anybody’s guess, but somehow this was to lead to the capture of the gadget. Fortunately, Sawyer is not simply a guy who knows how to check a building’s security with his hand-held tablet, but given his experience in the FBI and Marines, he is able to overcome all threats to himself and especially to his family, as his wife and kids are thrust into mortal danger by the gangsters. At one point they threaten to toss one of the little guys from a high floor to the streets below, as a large crowd of onlookers gasp at every turn and appear ready to applaud mightily if their hero succeeds in outwitting the villains.

The movie audience, hopefully distracted from lame dialogue and plot confusions, will focus mostly on Dwayne Johnson’s acrobatics: he flies through the air on a rope; he clings to a window ledge by his arms, in one instance losing his grip and depending on his other muscular limb to preserve his life; and most amusingly he has to deal with a huge door that might find a place in Trump Tower by quickly detaching his metal leg, using it to prevent the door from closing—like a passenger on a New York subway who sticks a foot in the door to keep it from closing, which would force him to wait four minutes for the next train. The one relatable scene is an elevator fall that thrusts the Sawyers from over a hundred stories, plunging them into what looks like their final ride to the street. This might have been influenced by Disney World’s Tower of Terror.

The producers are hoping for big box office from China, and no wonder. This movie must have sailed through whatever government body authorizes a quota of American movies, makes Hong Kong look like a tourist destination, and gives jobs to scores of Chinese actors and extras.

Rated PG-13. 102 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C-
Acting – C+
Technical – B
Overall – C+

PATH OF BLOOD – movie review

PATH OF BLOOD

Paladin
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonathan Hacker
Screenwriter: Jonathan Hacker adapted from the book by Hacker and Thomas Small
Cast: Samuel West, narrator. Tom Hollander as voices of the Jihad. Various members of Al-Qaeda plus government and security forces in Riyadh and environs
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/16/18
Opens: July 13, 2018

 

Image result for path of blood poster

This documentary is so real, its dialogue so tense, its speeches by leaders and member of Al-Qaeda so emotional, that you’d swear that “Path of Blood” is either a work of dramatic fiction or a mockumentary. But it is neither. This doc carries some of the most authentic information about the work of security forces in oil-rich Saudi Arabia against what they must consider the forces of darkness that it rivals even the excitement of fictional narratives like “The Hurt Locker.” The only distraction is a constant interruption of blank, black screens with “snow” to separate the chapters or even to show that Hacker is switching from the Al-Qaeda people to those in the Saudi government.

This is Jonathan Hacker’s first full-length feature, his other work dealing with TV shorts such as “Blackboards and Bullies,” which explores the roots of violent incidents in America’s school systems and tangible ways for communities to improve child safety. Recent school shootings make this sort of filmmaking essential, though with “Path of Blood,” Hacker investigates ideologically-driven madmen who have inflicted far worse punishments on their enemies than anyone has done so far in American schools.

“Path of Blood” consists of three categories of films, edited by Peter Haddon, Kirsi Pyy and Bob H. Woodward, all known mostly for their work on TV documentaries. One set consists of home movies taken by operatives in Al-Qaeda documenting the planning and training–meant only for their own people but captured by government forces after successful raids on what are called the organization’s safe houses. The second set is also filmed by Al-Qaeda, but these are fairly professional propaganda pieces meant to be seen by the “Crusaders,” who are their mortal enemies; the Crusaders being now only westerners but Saudi government forces who, the spokesmen say, should be fighting the Americans and not the terrorists. The third films were taken by Saudi officials to document their actions, showing the bodies of the fallen, catching the shooting even during the height of the battles. Most impressive.

There is, of course, some repetition as Hacker transcribes one action after another by security and the same by the terrorists. But we come away ultimately with these words of wisdom:

First, as admitted by Al-Qaeda reps themselves, a huge percentage of recruits are young, ignorant people, easy to motivate, especially when each has 72 virgins awaiting him after martyrdom. They are not only ignorant: they are stupid. In the opening scene, one that should grab the audience immediately, one “Ali,” almost clean shaven, his face unmasked, is getting intellectual training. Not an exact quote, but: “Ali, What do you say if you hear that what we are doing is a sin against Islam?” Answer: “I don’t understand the question. Keep it simple.” We never do find out whether he considers killing fellow Muslim is a sin, or even if the fellow knows the meaning of the word “sin.” In the same video, the men are horsing around, laughing it up, perhaps telling crude jokes, just like American adolescents. Recruits are assured that when they blow themselves, they will not feel a thing. Take it from someone who knows.

Second: Throughout, the men are told about the bad guys, the pro-West Crusaders: “Expel them! Rip them apart! Destroy them until they either die or convert to the true religion!” At least one of the Al-Qaeda people has been on missions in Bosnia, Yemen, and Afghanistan as well as in Saudi Arabia. In one instance they capture a western man, Paul Johnson, question him about his work, tell him that he is lying, wrap a gag around his mouth to accompany the blindfold, and presumably behead him. Instead of seeing the execution, Hacker provides us once again with that distracting, snow-covered black screen.

And so it goes: the terrorists plan attacks by car bombs. Some succeed, others do not. In the end, the Al-Qaeda reps who are captured, many actually turning themselves in because they are the few who do not “love death,” are sorted into the extremists and the moderate ideologues. The latter group are given re-education, not North Korean style, but a real re-education program in classrooms to bring them back into society. We don’t see what happens to the extremists. Cue the black screen.

Saudi Arabia is not known as a state with Swedish-style human rights, but there are good reasons for our alliance with them. They have money up the wazoo and buy things from us. They are fighting terrorists just as we are, and here in the U.S. we don’t yet have a Swedish-style government either—or at least the public’s stereotypical view of what goes on in Sweden, the rest of Scandinavia, and other Shangri-las. The film is adapted from Jonathan Hacker and Thomas Small’s 480-page book which sells for over $30 at Amazon—which despite the upcoming movie has only one copy on hand right now. The film is in Arabic with English subtitles except for the English narration.

Unrated. 91 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

EIGHTH GRADE – movie review

EIGHTH GRADE

A24
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bo Burnham
Screenwriter:  Bo Burnham
Cast:  Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 6/21/18
Opens: July 13, 2018
Eighth Grade Trailer for Bo Burnham's SXSW Hit
In the Jewish religion a boy becomes a man at the age of thirteen.  Fashionably enough, particularly in an age that women demand equality with men, a girl becomes a woman at thirteen as well.  Notwithstanding assertions at Bar Mitzvahs and Bas Mitzvahs, thirteen-year-olds are hardly men and women, though perhaps in Biblical times when folks had a life expectancy of fifty (Methuselah among the exceptions), teens became adults.  Nowadays, let’s compromise and say that we start thinking of ourselves as adults at that age while still anchored in childhood.  We want to be adults but are wondering what responsibilities will bring.  Most of all, at the age of thirteen we are afraid of not fitting in.  If you go through school thinking and acting awkwardly, if you don’t have friends, you will not look back kindly at early adolescence.  That’s where Kayla (Elise Fisher) comes in.

Like some of her classmates, she has a face covered by acne—except in scenes where she doesn’t—but that’s not her concern.  She’s not bullied; more like she’s ignored, and that is a worry for anyone her age and also for their caregivers. Kayla’s dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) is a single father who worries about her.  He tries to talk with her at the dinner table but she does not look at him, she does not hear him with those infernal ear buds in her head, and she’s irritated when he tries to converse with her.

Twenty-eight-year-old writer-director Bo Burnham’s “The Big Sick” focuses on a comedian, so we figure we’re not going to get another “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Todd Solondz’s caustic look at an unattractive seventh grader who has good reason to feel anxiety.  “Eighth Grade” by contrast is a feel-good treatment of a thirteen-year-old middle schooler who hates when people call her “quiet,” though she herself does not agree with that label.  Trying to prove this, she knocks out a series of videos in her bedroom giving advice to others of her generation, counsel that she tries, with only limited success, to follow in her own life.

At a pool party given by one of the school’s rich kids, she spots others having great fun, shooting one another with water cannons, showing off as one boy does when fitted with goggles that fit over his nose he tries without success to do hand-stands.  The tentative conversation between him and Kayla is rich with insight into the minds of people their age, just as all the chit-chat, the addiction to smart phones, the separation of pupils in cliques are spot-on.

Try not to get irritated at the opening scene.  Kayla is giving one of her Ann Landers’style advice to fellow teens, using terms like “you know” even more than the newscasters on CNN, “like” several times in a sentence, and “OK” so many times you may want to shake her up and say “Hey, you’re not OK, at least not yet.”   She enjoys bursts of conversations from a variety of people such as Gabe (Jake Ryan), the aforementioned fellow with the hand-stands who challenges her to a breath-holding contest.  She is afraid when a high-school junior (Daniel Zolghadri) asks her to remove her shirt just as he removed his.  Though “not comfortable” in that situation as she explains, she privately looks forward to sending sexy pictures to her boyfriend, whenever she lands someone on her wave length.  She enjoys a big breakthrough just her father does, when around a campfire, she realizes how lucky she is to have a dad like Mark who struggles with bringing up a girl without help from a partner.

The picture belongs to Elsie Fisher, a fifteen-year-old who has a remarkably long résumé in the TV and films business and who you may have seen before in “McFarland USA” or heard her voice in “Despicable Me.”  This is a breakthrough performance that may well be remembered at end-year awards time and should prove a movie that can fill far more seats at the multiplex than did “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”  Andrew Wehde filmed the action in White Plains (upstate) New York.

Unrated.  94 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

SHOCK AND AWE – movie review

SHOCK AND AWE

Vertical Entertainment & Direct TV
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Rob Reiner
Screenwriter:  Joey Hartstone
Cast:  Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Milla Jovovich, Jessica Biel Tommy Lee Jones, Luke Tennie
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC 6/29/18
Opens: July 13, 2018
Shock and Awe Movie Poster
Our President lies so many times that each successive perseveration has little impact.  Psychologists say that when you say anything that comes to your head, you yourself will probably not realize that you are lying.  However sometimes a single lie is such a blooper, has so much significance, that it reshapes the world.  That lie came from President Bush, although you could say that he believed a lie told by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi defector who hoped to become his country’s next leader.  That was that Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq whom the U.S. supported when that Middle Eastern country fought against Iran who now has weapons of mass destruction, or WMD’s that he might use against the United States.  Saddam was allegedly working on developing nuclear bombs and that he had, hidden somewhere, chemical and biological weapons that could havoc in the U.S.

Some people believe that Bush had an ulterior motive for attacking Iraq shortly after two planes deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.  Bush’s father, according to the rumor, was being targeted for assassination by Saddam and Dubya, i.e. George W. Bush (as opposed to his father George Herbert Walker Bush) was out for revenge.  Only Bush 43 knows the real reason for going to war in Iraq, a conflict which resulted in 36,000 American deaths and injuries and over one million deaths and injuries in Iraq.

Along comes a newspaper, actually a consortium of newspapers under the Knight Ridder label, the only major media to contradict even the New York Times.  The paper of record goofed by going along with Bush and advocating for military action.  But Knight Ridder did not believe that Saddam had WMD’s, its staff members given death threats for unpatriotic actions, specifically because that paper stood alone in telling the truth.  “Shock and Awe” is based on Knight Ridder’s thorough investigation leading to its big, bold dissent.

However Rob Reiner, who directed and has a principal role, gives us a “War 101” study which however well-meaning is so elementary and so lacking the tension that we experienced with movies like “A Few Good Men” and even the more recent “The Post,”
that journalism students may be bored and so might anyone who had been following U.S. war games for decades, though it could be a primer for people who have even less interest in foreign policy than I have in Major League baseball.

Reiner uses archival films starring higher-ups in government like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“there are unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know’), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, President George W. Bush, and featuring a dramatized Ahmed Chalabi.  The major players though are the reporters with Knight Ridder with 32 newspapers throughout the U.S.  As heroes in the struggle for truth, reporter Jonathan Landay is played by Woody Harrelson, James Marsden in the role of Warren Strobel, and Rob Reiner sits in for editor John Walcott, the man who hires Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones), a war correspondent, for confirmation.  The thing about syndicates in America is that not every subsidiary is bound to follow the leader, and in fact The Philadelphia Inquirer refused to join the Knight Ridder people in publishing their scoops.

Moments of tension are dramatized but not followed up.  During one evening as Landay and his wife Vladka (Milla Jovovich) prepare to cuddle, she breaks the mood by arguing with her husband insisting that his investigation will endanger the family (we see one example of a death threat taken against the reporters by Internet trolls). Nothing comes of that. In the movie’s one romantic thread, Warren Strobel and Lisa (Jessica Biel) go on a date in which she lectures the handsome but awkward gent about Middle Eastern politics that leaves him awed, but any intelligent middle school person studying politics at all would consider her information elementary.

The film’s sentimental and heartbreaking scene finds Adam (Luke Tennie) opening the movie by testifying about the Iraq War with a congressional committee, and in fact we see the explosion that severed his spinal cord in his very first day in Iraq and left him in a wheelchair.  The film’s script comes from Joey Hartstone, known for the more intelligent and less schmaltzy “LBJ”

Rated R.  90 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+
Acting – B-
Technical – B-
Overall – C+