Tag Archives: based on true events

I Spy…

A Call to Spy

by Brandon Thomas

Finding a new way to tell a story set during World War II can’t be easy. Men on a mission? Loads of those. Pulpy action adventures? Some of the biggest movies of all time. Dramas exploring the depths of the human condition? We’ve all cried during these. 

What about the true story of female spies sent to France as secret agents? Yeah, that sounds fresh, and thankfully A Call to Spy is just that. 

Great Britain had its back firmly against the wall in the early days of WW II. The Blitz had nearly brought the country to its knees, and Germany’s occupation of France made the threat of invasion seem imminent. In desperation, Winston Churchill formed the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a new spy agency with one purpose: recruit and train women as spies.

A Call to Spy focuses on three women: Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), a Bavarian-born Jew, Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), an American, and Noor Khan (Radhika Apte), an Indian Muslim. As the top recruiter, Atkins makes unusual choices in the other two. Hall is a wannabe diplomat with a wooden leg, while Noor is a pacifist. Within the grid of a taught spy thriller, A Call to Spy is mostly interested in how these three pushed back against multiple systems that found them to be less-than. 

Writer and star Sarah Megan Thomas, along with director Lydia Dean Pilcher, weave this true story in such a way that each woman’s tale is given weight and purpose. Unlike many female- driven spy films, our protagonists aren’t scantily clad vixens. Their strength lies in their brains, their cunning and their resolve.

Thomas and Katic channel equal parts determination and vulnerability in their performances. They are leaders who know they have more eyes on them than their male counterparts. Apte’s Noor has the less flashy role that’s at times regulated to the sidelines for huge swaths of the movie. Her final few scenes are intense and devastating, though. 

A Call to Spy jumps around so much that at times it does seem like large chunks of story are being left by the wayside. The character work is subtle and nuanced, but the narrative feels as if it’s tripping over its own feet. Those clunkier moments at times make the movie more resemble a trailer than a fully cohesive story. 

With an interesting look at a true World War II story and captivating performances, A Call to Spy is able to overcome some narrative shortcomings to land as a tense spy thriller. 


The Outpost

by Hope Madden

Films concerning the US’s two decade war in Afghanistan have not managed to find much of an audience. I’m not sure Summer 2020—the year we welcomed meth gators as a needed distraction from our own personal hell—will improve those odds.

And yet, director Rod Lurie’s The Outpost bravely ventures to the streaming environment this week to remind us that a solid, understated war movie can still thrill.

The ensemble piece features Caleb Landry Jones and Scott Eastwood as two sides of a coin. Eastwood’s Staff Sgt. Clint (that’s right) Romesha is a born leader with quiet dignity, grit and a mind for strategy. Cynical of the Army’s “frat boy” culture, Jones’s Staff Sgt. Ty Carter doesn’t quite fit in.

Where doesn’t he fit in? A sitting duck army outpost situated at the basin of surrounding mountains where Taliban forces travel, watch and shoot.

Screenwriter Eric Johnson’s bread and butter has been teaming with Paul Tamasy to create the cinematic presentation of a true story. They nearly won an Oscar for Johnson’s first foray into feature length screenplays, David O’ Russell’s powerful The Fighter (with Scott Silver).

The duo join forces again, this time adapting Jake Tapper’s investigative book concerning one extraordinary battle in our war in Afghanistan.

Understatement works in the film’s favor, Lurie favoring overlapping dialog and naturalistic settings to bombast and a leading score. In fact, much of the film plays without a score, a refreshing change that gives The Outpost a grittier, more realistic feel that serves it well. Because truth be told, a true tale that delivers this amount of sheer will, courage, perseverance and spirit is undermined by flapping flags and swelling strings. Lurie’s restraint says, “This is really what happened. Can you effing believe that?!”

That’s not to say The Outpost eliminates every cowboy moment. Indeed, this may be the first role in which Eastwood makes the most of his famous last name, clearly channeling his father in a performance punctuated by controlled, hushed rage and squinting blue eyes.

But Caleb Landry Jones, as remarkable and versatile actor as you will find, is the broken soul of this film. Jones does “haunted” in a way that makes every other performance feel like a performance.

Together Lurie, his writers and his cast sidestep clichés, delivering instead a clear-eyed look at bravery, failure, and the cost of war.

In the Name of the Son

Three Christs

by Hope Madden

“Three grown men who believe they are Jesus Christ—it’s almost comical,” reads Bradley Whitford’s Clyde, a Ypsilanti mental patient who happens to be one of those three men. There is something bittersweet and meta about his reading that particular line from Dr. Stone’s (Richard Gere) report on the experimental procedure the doctor is undertaking with his three chosen patients.

On its surface, Three Christs itself seems almost comical. Whitford, Walton Goggins and Peter Dinklage play real life patients institutionalized in Michigan in the 1960s, each of whom believed they were Jesus. Just below the surface is a sad, lonesome story of a medical system ill-equipped and unwilling to treat the individual, and of the peculiar, touching struggles of three souls lost within that system.

Director Jon Avnet, writing with Eric Nazarian, adapts social psychologist Milton Rokeach’s nonfiction book on his own study, “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.”

Whitford’s performance is fine, but he’s somewhat out of his league when compared to Dinklage and Goggins. Dinklage is the film’s heartbeat and he conveys something simultaneously vulnerable and superior in his behavior. He’s wonderful as always, but it’s Goggins who steals this film.

Walton Goggins continues to be an undervalued and under-recognized talent. He can play anything from comic relief to sadistic villainy to nuanced dramatic lead (check out his turn in Them That Follow for proof of the latter). Here the rage that roils barely beneath the surface speaks to the loneliness and pain of constantly misunderstanding and being misunderstood that has marked his character’s entire life.

Gere is the weakest spot in the film. He charms, and his rare scenes with Juliana Margulies, playing Stone’s wife Ruth, are vibrant and enjoyable. But in his responses to his patients and in his struggles against the system (mainly embodied by Stephen Root and Kevin Pollak), he falls back on headshakes, sighs and bitter chuckles.

Aside from two of the three Christs’ performances, Avent’s film looks good but lacks in focus, failing to hold together especially well. The point of the extraordinary treatment method is never very clear, nor is its progress. Stone’s arc is also weak, which again muddies the point of the film.

Three Christs misses more opportunities than it grabs, which is unfortunate because both Dinklage and especially Goggins deliver performances worth seeing.

I’ll Be You

JT LeRoy

by Hope Madden

Do you remember the JT LeRoy hubbub? Maybe you confuse it with the similar hullaballoo surrounding James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, the memoir that turned out to be highly fictional?

Please don’t. LeRoy’s bizarre fake nonfiction and ensuing scandal is so much more interesting.

Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy is a hoax perpetrated on an almost grotesquely willing public. Laura Albert, a frustrated writer, master manipulator and likely sufferer of mental health issues, invented LeRoy.

More than the nom de plume used to pen Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, LeRoy became Albert’s literary persona. Albert herself didn’t exist in this world. She became LeRoy, the writer of lurid “autobiographical” pieces that, together with a mysterious nature, won the hearts of readers, media and celebrities alike.

In fact, Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy became so popular that he had no choice but to show his nonexistent face.

Enter Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop.

The weird true-life tale of LeRoy’s fake-life tale has been documented twice in works of nonfiction (the documentaries The Cult of JT LeRoy and Author: The JT LeRoy Story, both worth viewing). Director Justin Kelly is the first to make fiction of the fiction with his aptly cast film, J.T. LeRoy.

Though the film doesn’t offer a great deal of insight beyond what you can glean from the two documentaries, it takes Knoop’s point of view for a refreshing change of pace. But its real strength is the film’s cast.

Kristen Stewart makes the ideal choice to play Savanna/JT. Effortlessly androgynous, moody, sensual and conflicted, Stewart gives the character a vulnerable center, balancing Knoop’s motivation between a sense of duty to Albert and a personal longing for artistic expression.

Naturally, Laura Dern shines, stealing scenes and oscillating between free spirit and opportunist. She does a fine job of illustrating Abbot’s view of creating this other personality who can take on her own pain, can amplify that pain and turn it into both an escape and art. At the same time, Dern’s the schemer, the survivor manipulating those around her. It’s interesting the way the veteran character actor weaves between artist and manipulator in a context that questions the difference between fiction and fraud.

The two leads become a great point/counter point and the film is strongest in their shared scenes. When JT wanders off alone, burdened by puppy love or struggling to keep up a persona of another’s creation, a certain spark goes out.

That’s not to say that the balance of the cast falters. Diane Kruger is particularly slippery as Eva, a thinly veiled version of Asia Argento. But as intriguing as her interplay is with JT, you miss the constant push and pull of wills when Stewart and Dern work off each other.

In the Name of the Father

White Boy Rick

by Hope Madden

Detroit’s economic blight has offered a powerful backdrop to many a film—Only Lovers Left Alive and Don’t Breathe spring to mind. But for White Boy Rick, this decrepitude does not simply serve a fictional horror. It created a real one.

Rick Wersche Sr. peddled guns to Detroit lowlifes. Feds preyed upon his 14-year-old son with an offer: become an FBI informant or the old man goes to prison. Things escalated, Rick Jr. made some questionable decisions (as teens are wont to do), the Feds took advantage, and by the time he was 17, White Boy Rick was facing a lifetime prison sentence with no hope for parole. This for his first conviction, a nonviolent crime.

Making his acting debut, Richie Merritt cuts a believably affable street kid. He’s like a puppy, a mutt, with moppy hair and a bad teenage mustache. The characterization helps to clarify how he so easily ingratiates himself into dangerous gangs, or why he’s trusted by the same, but it’s a tougher sell when Rick turns kingpin.

Bel Powley nails the role of sister and more obvious victim of the family’s circumstances, while both Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie are a hoot in small roles. But it’s Matthew McConaughey who most impresses.

McConaughey hits not one false note as the self-deluded optimist, Rick Sr. All resilient façade and pathetic underpinnings, desperate to create a healthy future for his family even as his own illicit gun sales compound Detroit’s problems, Rick Sr. is a study in contradictions. McConaughey approaches the task with nuance and empathy, and the result amazes.

In its best moments, White Boy Rick laments the circuitous nature of poverty and urban decline. When it’s really on point, it even illuminates the infrastructure that perpetuates the tragedy.

In its off-moments, though, it tries too hard to present Rick Wersche Jr. as a good kid who didn’t deserve his fate. There is no doubt that Wershe did not deserve his fate, nor did countless other nonviolent felons convicted during the US’s dubious war on drugs. But there’s something about the way director Yann Demange (’71) differentiates the white boy from the rest of the criminals that is unsettling.

The racial dynamics of the film lack much of the nuance afforded the family drama. Demange invites us into the world that’s so appealing to Rick Jr.—a lure that’s far more compelling than just money—but he can’t follow through.

It’s too bad, because as a showcase for performances, White Boy Rick excels. It just can’t entirely decide what it wants to accomplish with its story.

Ball of Confusion


by Hope Madden

Welcome back, Spike Lee!

It’s not like he’s really been gone. He’s made a dozen or more TV episodes, documentaries, short films and basement-budget indies since his unfortunate 2013 compromised vision Old Boy. But BlacKkKlansman is a return to form—to the envelope-pushing enjoyment that showcases his skills as storyteller, entertainer and activist.

Earmarks of his most indelible marks on cinema—Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X—these three elements have rarely joined forces since 1992. You might get one (Get on the Bus) or two (Inside Man, Chi-Raq), but not all three.

Why now? Lee isn’t the first filmmaker to realize how painfully relevant historical tales of systemic racism are at the moment. But it wasn’t until 2014 that Ron Stallworth published the book detailing how he, a black cop in Colorado Springs in 1979, infiltrated the KKK.

You see how it all comes together?

If you don’t, you really should. Lee balances unexpected shifts between humor and drama, camaraderie and horror, entertainment and history lesson, popcorn-muncher and experimental indie with a fluidity few other directors could muster.

The story itself is beyond insane—a zany, hair-raising misadventure destined for the big screen. Stallworth (John David Washington), a rookie in Colorado Springs’s intelligence office, stumbles upon an ad in the newspaper, makes a call, and joins the Klan.

Of course, he’ll need a second officer to actually show up. Enter Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver—perfect), who sounds about as much like Stallworth as he looks, plus he’s Jewish, which could further complicate his face-to-face relationship with the hate group.

Much sit-com-esque absurdity and dramatic police procedural thrills follow, but it’s the way Lee subverts these standard formats that hits home. The insidious nature of the racism depicted in 1979 echoes in both directions—in the history that brought our country to this moment in time, and in the future Ron Stallworth undoubtedly hoped he could prevent.

Yes, there are laugh out loud moments in this film, but there are far more rallying cries.

Hot Hand

Molly’s Game

by Hope Madden

As screenwriters go, few have as noticeable a presence as Aaron Sorkin. A Sorkin screenplay = smart people saying smart things really quickly, over top of each other, often while walking.

His are dialogue-driven character pieces where brilliant people throw intellectual and moral challenges at one another while the audience wonders whether the damaged protagonist’s moral compass can still find true north.

That struggling hero this time around is Molly Bloom, played by the always-sharp Jessica Chastain. On first blush, the idea that Sorkin—directing his first feature—would choose to focus on a gossip-page celebrity criminal seems wrong. Bloom became tabloid fodder after her arrest made her high stakes, celebrity-filled poker games big news.

Gossip is not Sorkin’s wheelhouse, but unsung, solitary brilliance is and that’s what he hopes you see in Bloom, an Olympic-class skier with Harvard Law plans who found herself hosting insane poker games before realizing she had the wherewithal to build an epically lucrative business.

This is clear movie-of-the-week stuff elevated to something worthwhile because Sorkin is more interested in the evolution and entrapment of a brilliant mind than he is in movie stars playing poker. Although there is some of that, too, and it is provocatively handled by Michael Cera.

Playing against type and relishing the opportunity, Cera’s “Player X”—the Big Movie Star who just likes to ruin lives—is a spoiled brat and the performance is stand-out nasty.

The always underused Idris Elba is underused but excellent as Bloom’s reluctant-but-coming-around attorney Charley Jaffe. His slower, looser style counters Chastain’s machine gun cadence and the chemistry helps to keep the courtroom preparation interesting.

The problem with Molly’s Game—aside from its sometimes amazing similarities to Chastain’s 2016 courtroom drama Miss Sloane—are its many Sorkinisms. Chastain opens the film with an incredibly lengthy voiceover monologue providing all Molly’s backstory in the film’s first big misfire, but the almost dream-sequence bad scene between Molly and her psychoanalyst father (Kevin Costner) on a park bench is nearly insurmountable, Sorkin fan or no.

Appreciating Molly’s Game helps if you are a Sorkin fan. He has a particular style and, since he’s directing this one as well, there is no getting away from that style. There’s no David Fincher or Danny Boyle to supply a bit of visual flair to offset all of Sorkin’s writerly tendencies. Sorkin is everywhere, which is not necessarily a bad thing if you like sharp performances about smart people doing fascinating things.

A Grateful Nation

Thank You for Your Service

by Hope Madden

American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall moves behind the camera for his thematically similar big screen adaptation, Thank You for Your Service.

Where the Clint Eastwood-helmed Sniper dealt in large part with its hero’s bumpy re-acclimation to civilian life, Thank You deals almost exclusively with veterans’ troubles on the homefront.

Miles Teller is Adam Schumann, returning permanently to his wife and two small children after his third tour in Iraq. He’s joined by buddies and platoon-mates Solo (Beulah Koale) and Will (Joe Cole).

Too earnest for its own good, Thank You for Your Service shadows these three servicemen as the responsibility for and repercussions from their actions overseas haunt their post-war lives.

This is a film about PTSD, but more than that, it’s about a country both ill-equipped to serve those who served, and often disinterested in trying.

Hall’s storytelling can’t rise above cliché, but he manages to tell his painfully heartfelt tale without cloying manipulation or judgment. Though Thank You buzzes with impotent rage—that of the filmmaker as well as that of the protagonists—it never feels preachy or even pessimistic. Hall articulates these veterans’ helplessness and frustration in a way that is genuinely rare in our current glut of flag-waving dramas, big screen and small.

Teller, always strong when playing a likable goof who’s just hanging on, is in his comfort zone as the soldier with the best chance to make it. He and Haley Bennett, playing Schumann’s wife Saskia, share believable, well-worn chemistry and there are moments between them when Hall’s gift for naturalistic writing shines.

At other times, the dialog forces too much explanation at the audience, as if Hall doesn’t trust us to understand the extent of the problems plaguing our veterans. A newcomer to directing, Hall’s unsteady craftsmanship can’t overcome that weakness in the same way that Eastwood was able to.

This is a tough film to criticize, though. Hall and crew do get an awful lot right, and the film surprises with periodic bits of gallows humor, selfishness and other glimpses at human frailty that make the film feel far more authentic than Sniper or most any other veteran-themed film.

The flaws can’t go unseen, though, and Hall either needed a better writer or a director who could take some of the obviousness of this screenplay and find a fresher way to approach it.



by Hope Madden

It is hard to go wrong with a story as viscerally affecting as that of Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli who took a year off from his life to seek adventure. He found it in the Jungle.

Beautifully portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, Yossi heads to Bolivia where he befriends Swiss schoolteacher Marcus (Joel Jackson) and American photographer Kevin (Alex Russell).

Director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) invests a good chunk of Jungle in letting us get to know this amiable, romantic trio—searching souls that seek some kind of connection with nature, humanity and life.

They find something that may be too good to be true when Yossi meets the mysterious jungle guide Karl (a wonderful Thomas Kretschmann). Together the foursome head into uncharted territories in search of lost tribes, rivers full of gold and other wonders not found on the typical tourist to-do list.

You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true.

Frustrations run high, mercy runs low, faith in leadership wanes, and eventually, an accident separates Ghinsberg from the group. He is on his own to survive the jungle, starvation, delirium, and one nasty, squirmy head wound.

Adapting Ghinsberg’s autobiography, screenwriter Justin Monjo sticks to highlights, which gives the film an artificiality it never fully shakes. McLean’s camera embraces both the overpowering beauty of the extreme environment as well as its shadowy, jagged, sometimes toothy menace. He just needs to learn when to leave it alone.

Speaking of alone, Radcliffe spends about 1/3 of the film on his own. For anyone still wondering whether Harry Potter can act, this film should set aside all doubt. Radcliffe is a natural fit for deeply decent characters, and his expressive face helps him communicate an enormous amount of unspoken content.

He’s great, as is the story and the balance of the cast. It’s just the writer and director who let us down from time to time.

Jungle is at its worse when McLean shows how little faith he has in his material and his audience, leaning on emotional manipulation and an almost oppressively leading score to ensure we are getting his point.

There are other questionable decisions, like the dream sequences, which offer little to the film besides the opportunity to objectify the few—all lovely, all nameless—women who grace the screen.

Jungle is, if nothing else, a powerful testament to Daniel Radcliffe’s potency as an actor. It’s also an unbelievable story, and Radcliffe’s performance ensures your keen interest regardless of McLean’s antics.

Kingdom Come

A United Kingdom

by Hope Madden

Last year, Jeff Nichols’s Loving quietly observed the bond between Mildred and Richard Loving, a married couple whose union eventually brought down miscegenation laws in the US.

A United Kingdom, Amma Asante’s follow up to her 2013 historical drama Belle, treads similar waters. Like Loving, this is the true story of an interracial marriage with profound social and political impact.

In 1945, London clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) married Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (now Botswana).

Rejected by her family and his, the couple then faced opposition first from Khama’s people, then, more sharply, from the British government working in collusion with apartheid-riddled South Africa.

A United Kingdom teems with beautiful actors, postcard-ready shots, swelling strings and feel good moments.

What Asante’s film lacks is Nichols’s observational style, one that trusts the story and the actors to draw an audience in. Asante too often tells the audience how to feel with a leading score and disruptive camerawork.

The filmmaker and her cast have a lot of ground to cover, and though Asante’s glimpses the budding romance quickly enough to induce whiplash, her instincts are strong when it comes to handling the drier political wheeling and dealing that sought to keep the newlyweds separate.

David Oyelowo’s performance cannot help but conjure memories of his outstanding turn in Ava DuVernay’s 2014’s masterpiece, Selma. As he did in his portrayal of Martin Luther King, Oyelowo gives Khama tremendous presence. He is thoughtful, wise, compelling, charismatic yet human – exactly the kind of person who could lead a nation to democracy.

As Williams, Pike presents a believable mix of self-assuredness and self-doubt. In her hands, Ruth is elegant, humble and in love.

Luckily for Asante and the film, Oyelowo and Pike share so bright an onscreen union they overshadow most of A United Kingdom’s faults. They do seem very comfortably in love. So much so that it is impossible to accept that anyone – let alone three entire governments – felt the need to force the two apart.

While far from perfect, A United Kingdom gives you reason to applaud, to feel good, and to hope. That may be enough.