The Morning After: Jun. 2, 2014

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what movies I’ve seen over the past week. Below, you will find short reviews of those movies along with a star rating. Full length reviews may come at a later date.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

The Killing Fields


There are three sides to every story. There’s the story the government wants you to see, the story as seen by an outsider from within and there’s the story from the perspective of those who survive it. Roland Joffé’s split narrative film following the Khmer Rouge campaign of violence in Cambodia in the years following the war in Vienam is harrowing, challenging and important to how we look at the past and can use it to direct our future.

The Killing Fields is told from two perspectives, those of American journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) working for the New York Times and Cambodian photographer Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor, an actual survivor of Pol Pot’s Year Zero offensive) working as a translator for the Times. The film opens as the U.S. government attempts to mitigate the negative fallout of their aggravating and losing conflict in Vietnam by covering up the violence spilling over into Cambodia where a civil war has erupted between the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian National Army. As the conflict intensifies, Schanberg, Pran and a host of foreign journalists must try to cover the story and then escape alive. The second half of the film follows Pran as he his friends are unable to get him out of the country and he is forced to survive within the prison camps and against the coming onslaught of the Pol Pot regime.

This feels like two films blended together to tell two stories, those of the courageous journalists trying to expose the post-Vietnam Nixon Doctrine and its catastrophic impact on Southeast Asia and of the terrified and innocent people within Cambodia stuck in the middle of a war they didn’t start, didn’t want and can’t escape. There are many things about this film to like whether it’s the superb performances from Waterston, Ngor and John Malkovich; the brilliant use of Mike Oldfield’s score; the political commentary; and how all this ties into and can remind modern audiences that we aren’t so far removed from the Vietnam conflict that we aren’t able to replicate its failures.

The Big Chill


In 1983, this cast list may not have seemed as impressive as it does today. Some of the finest thespians who worked in the 1980′ and beyond were featured prominently in this humorous and richly detailed look at the lives of seven friends who reunite 15 years after going their own ways over the suicide of an old friend.

Lawrence Kasdan crafted a dense character drama filled with compelling, realistic characters exploring their failures, successes and insecurities while reminiscing about what made them great friends and cause them to wonder why they didn’t stay closer knit over the intervening time. Alex’s death has brought them all back together alongside of his younger girlfriend (Meg Tilly) in what turns out to be a touching reunion fraught with happiness, bitterness, self-recrimination and dollops of sexual tension.

The film stars Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Jeff Goldblum, JoBeth Williams, Tom Berenger and Mary Kay Place as the seven friends reuniting over the never-seen Alex (played by Kevin Costner in all extant scenes). This talented group of actors make for a breezy, compelling look at dysfunctional friendships. You can’t watch this movie and not recognize kernels of your past, present and future interpersonal relationships. It’s hard to picture a more perfectly cast film. Additionally, Kasdan was one of the best directors working in the 1980’s and this may be his seminal film.

When I say this is an impressive cast, I’m not exaggerating. Apart from their great performance here, there are few casts so impressively awarded. All eight of the cast members went on to earn (or had earned) Oscar, Emmy and Tony nominations and several of them have won. All except Place have received Oscar nominations in other projects with Kline and Hurt later winning. All except Tilly are Emmy nominees with Close, Place, Goldblum and Berenger winning or having won prizes. Close, Kline and Hurt are also Tony award nominees with Kline and Close having won multiple trophies.

The Verdict


An alcoholic attorney (Paul Newman), running from his failures is brought a case that gives him the opportunity to emerge from the bottle and work furiously to protect a young woman put into a coma through the ineptitude of her physicians. As Frank Galvin takes on the hospital through the Catholic Church’s aggressive attorneys, he begins to understand just how dangerous, but ultimately rewarding a game he’s playing for the side of right against those who would cover it up.

The film speaks out against the notion that money and a team of lawyers can effectively sweep dirty, underhanded practices under the rug by invoking their immense power to turn the tides of a trial. From the Church’s no-holds-barred lawyer (James Mason) to the disinterested judge (Milo O’Shea) to the courageous friend and fellow attorney (Jack Warden) to the romantic interest with an ulterior motive (Charlotte Rampling), The Verdict explores a ruthless, corrupt system that favors those who can rip apart any defense and paint their foes as incompetent malcontents trying to besmirch the names of those who have given so nobly of their lives and careers.

Sidney Lumet keeps tension high and never lets the audience believe that the battle is won. At all turns, he portrays the film as one large end-run around justice and propriety. There are pay-offs, extortion, lies, disinterest and any number of obstacles that get in Galvin’s way and while the audience comes to appreciate him once he sees more than dollar signs, they are never left without the suspicion that the big money will win out in the end. It’s a fascinating courtroom drama that stands with the very best of the genre.

Witness


A look at the Amish lifestyle forms the foundation for a crime thriller as a Philadelphia cop becomes embroiled in the investigation of the murder of a fellow officer and the revelation that corrupt policemen are involved in a dangerous game.

Harrison Ford plays John Book, an idealistic young detective who discovers through a young Amish boy (Lucas Haas) who is an eye witness to a murder that a prominent drug enforcement officer is involved in a scheme to steal confiscated drug supplies and turn them over for profit within the same drug communities they are busting. As he investigates, he discovers the crimes have long fingers dipping into every aspect of the department forcing him to take the child and his mother (Kelly McGillis) back to Amish country where they hide out from the certain deaths that will come should they be found.

Peter Weir’s film has a lot going for it. The bathroom murder scene is taut and exciting as is the film’s final act. However, what occurs in between is a frequently uneven romantic drama between a big city cop and a recently-widowed young mother. The film puts the simple, peaceful life of the Amish in direct contrast with the complex, deadly world of the big city. The culture clash is modestly interesting, though it feels heavily contrived and makes for a slower pace than one would normally expect from this time of film.

As a note, no Amish actually appear on film. The extras were largely Mennonite who are more accepting of modern technology and conveniences. The Amish community even issued statements and warnings through their lawyer against the inaccurate depiction of their life and the encouragement the film would have of sending more tourists and gawkers into their private lives, a point referenced at one point in the film.

A Million Ways to Die in the West


Sometimes funny people need to let others take center stage. Seth MacFarlane has some genuine perverted, but humorous perspectives, but in front of the camera, his ego-centrism becomes a fascinating, but destructive distraction. A Million Ways to Die in the West perfectly exemplifies everything that’s right and wrong with MacFarlane’s approach to comedy and storytelling.

The film centers around a bored sheep farmer (MacFarlane) whose pretty, but self-absorbed girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) has decided to leave him for the wealthy, generally more exciting Moustachery operator (Neil Patrick Harris) leaving him to wonder why he doesn’t just move out to San Francisco and abandon his friends and family in a place where everything from gunfighters to rattlesnakes to coyotes to intestinal diseases can kill you. When a beautiful, confident woman (Charlize Theron) arrives in town and takes a liking to the cowardly shepherd, things begin to get interesting, especially when he discovers that the woman’s husband (Liam Neeson) is one of the most notorious gunslingers in the west.

For all of MacFarlane’s self-centered style, he knows how to surround himself with strong comic actors who do fine work, even if they are largely caricatures of simplistic Old West concepts. Harris twirls his moustaches with great relish; Neeson glares and demeans with the best of them; Giovanni Ribisi’s self-deprecating awkwardness is endearing; and Sarah Silverman’s straight-laced hooker with a heart of gold are all worth watching. However, it’s Theron who gives the film its heart and passion.

Creating one of the strongest female characters at the cinema this year, Theron’s vulnerable Anna is tough, discerning, wise and courageous. She doesn’t take guff from anyone, having had to survive at the hands of a boorish husband to whom she was betrothed at a very early age. Theron blends humor and self-assuredness to create a woman who might have felt perfectly at home in a regular western, but who is adept enough at comedy to go toe-to-toe with MacFarlane and show him up every time they are together.

MacFarlane’s film plays heavily on the tropes of the genre without deconstructing them. He’s content with poking fun at a period of history that was in many ways a rough, vicious and dangerous time, especially for those who weren’t wealthy and white. There are several jokes that poke fun at life expectancy, teenage marriage, slavery and Native American relations. With a few exceptions, MacFarlane successfully straddles the line between tasteful and demeaning. His over-reliance on scatological humor is frequently a weakness, but anyone familiar with The Family Guy should be used to that type of juvenile humor. It works less often than it fails, but sometimes it’s so childish that it becomes hysterical due to its sheer lunacy.

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