Always Faithful

Megan Leavey

by George Wolf

Anchored by the powerful bond between a K-9 Marine and his handler, Megan Leavey is a thoroughly respectful and frequently touching testament to heroes of differing species.

Kate Mara is fantastic as Corporal Leavey, who was twice deployed to Iraq with her bomb-sniffing dog Rex, saving multiple lives until they were both wounded by an improvised explosive. After her return to civilian life, Leavey mounted an impressive campaign to adopt Rex, and was ultimately successful with an assist from her Senator, New York’s Chuck Schumer.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who nearly brought Sea World to its knees with the documentary Blackfish, builds Megan Leavey with impressive restraint in each of its themes. Never a jingoistic war film, shameless recruiting tool or schmaltzy ode to a dog’s purpose (pun intended), the film, like its subjects, does a job and does it well.

At times tense, loving, and even goosebump-worthy, Megan Leavey is a fine reminder that family comes in all breeds.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Battle Scars

Man Down

by George Wolf

Before it makes a hard left turn down Lifetime Lane, Man Down sets a decent hook. The cast is uniformly splendid, while director/co-writer Dito Montiel displays some effective understatement in the early going, establishing a confidence in the destination that he can’t quite reward.

Shia LeBeouf is outstanding as Gabriel Drummer, a Marine searching for his son in a near future ravaged by some manner of deadly outbreak. Teamed with fellow Marine and boyhood buddy Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney), Gabriel scours the terrain for any survivor who might have seen his little boy.

Slowly, Montiel weaves in the backstory, with flashbacks to bootcamp, a happy home life with wife Natalie (Kate Mara), dangerous patrols in Afghanistan and sessions with a Marine counselor (Gary Oldman) who gently pushes a shaken Gabriel to talk about “the incident.”

LeBeouf, regardless of his personal antics, can deliver the goods. Though his character’s arc isn’t presented in linear fashion, LaBeouf mines the resonant layers. Gabriel’s early naivete, hardened intensity and haunted conscience are all fleshed out, while the separate angles LaBeouf  employs in intimate scenes with Mara and Oldman (both stellar) buoy all three performances.

Montiel (Fighting, Robin Williams’s final film Boulevard) again has fine intentions, but is too content to satisfy them with dated predictability. What he’s saying isn’t new, and how he’s saying it is even less so. You’ll most likely guess one major plot revelation early on, then sense the other coming with an “are we going there – yes, I guess we’re going there” type of dread.

There are interesting characters here and fine actors to inhabit them. They just need somewhere equally interesting to go.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

 

 

Mean Machine

Morgan

by Hope Madden

The weekend of wasted talent rolls on with Morgan, a derivative AI adventure that boasts an impressive cast and a lot of borrowed material.

Luke Scott’s feature directorial debut finds trouble with the L7 – an unnamed corporation’s newest attempt at artificial intelligence. There’s been an injury, and we don’t want a repeat of Helsinki, (it’s always Helsinki!) so Corporate sends the risk analyst (Kate Mara) to assess the situation.

The cast offers loads of reason for optimism. Joining Mara are Brian Cox, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Toby Jones and the great Paul Giamatti. That is a stacked ensemble. And even if every single one of them is underused, each brings something genuine and human – you know, the kind of thing that comes from deep and true talent – to the proceedings.

Highest hopes, though, are hung on the potentially dangerous cyborg herself, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Hot off a brilliant lead in The Witch, Taylor-Joy again takes on a role in which her innocence is in question.

Like Witch helmsman Robert Eggers, Scott employs full screen close ups of Taylor-Joy’s face – her enormous, wide-set eyes and round, innocent features – to exacerbate a struggle to determine whether the character is good or evil.

And Scott clearly knows a good idea when he sees it because he borrows, grabs and plunders with glee.

His film is a mish-mash of Ex Machina, The Silence of the Lambs, Blade Runner and Terminator buoyed with decent performances and one vaguely fresh notion.

Every major character – every hero, villain, person of authority and character pivotal to the plot – is female. Every good decision, poor decision, and bit of badassery is made by a woman. And – get this – even when two of those women are soaking wet, their shirts are neither clingy nor sheer.

Right?!

I’m not going to lie to you – any horror/action hybrid with a predominantly female cast that chooses not to stoop to titillation and exploitation gets an extra star.

There are subtle moments that toy with sexuality, and Scott wisely lets Taylor-Joy express these themes primarily through a nuanced physicality. That, decent pacing and performances better than the material demands elevate the film above the predictable off-season action vehicle that it is.

Verdict-3-0-Stars