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Clint Eastwood’s ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ Runs on Fumes

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Clint Eastwood's The 15:17 to Paris

“They should make a movie out of that.” It’s a sentiment we’ve heard before, or perhaps we’ve said it to ourselves after seeing something truly astounding. After all, the movies don’t have a monopoly on great stories; films can refract — and sometimes distort — the events of life into Herculean struggles, but sometimes they simply reflect the reality of experience. It’s clear that Clint Eastwood aimed to make The 15:17 to Paris a faithful document of the experiences of three young Americans who helped stop a train attack while on a trip through Europe, and much of the film has an exhilarating sense of veracity. But too much of The 15:17 to Paris has been distorted by the artificiality of moviemaking, as if the story has been projected into a funhouse mirror.

The film opens with tantalizing glimpses of what will become its climactic events. It’s August 21, 2015, aboard a train from Amsterdam heading toward Paris. After holing himself up in the bathroom for an unusual amount of time, a Moroccan man, Ayoub El Khazzani, bursts out of the bathroom carrying an assault rifle, to be subdued — in part — by three Americans: Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, and Spencer Stone. The movie will return to that moment periodically, only allowing its heroes the chance to act in the final minutes.

Before we get there, Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal set their sights on these men when they first met as children in Sacramento. After Skarlatos and Stone’s mothers (played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer) pull them out of public school in favor of Christian school, they strike up a friendship with Sadler, who has a reputation as a trouble maker.

The 15:17 to Paris is at its weakest in these early school sections. The three young actors portraying the leads are stilted, almost laughable in their unease. It’s hard to say who’s to blame, whether it’s a matter of poor casting or poor direction. Eastwood is notorious for giving little direction to his actors, and for shooting two or three takes at most. Young actors haven’t developed their craft yet — they don’t have a wealth of experiences to draw from when planning out their roles, so it’s more important than ever to have a director who can show them the way. Eastwood leaves the three young men floundering.

He doesn’t do Greer or Fischer any favors either. Both actress have done great work before, particularly in comedic roles, but here they sound like the concerned mothers in some forgettable after school special. It’s Eastwood’s failure as a director, but the scenes also reveal the weaknesses of the screenplay. Blyskal, a first-time screenwriter, is guilty of penning some truly awful dialogue. In another film the director might have adjusted the dialogue until it flowed nicely — or more professional actors would have been talented enough to make even ungainly lines sound natural — but the young actors, and later the non-actors, simply end up looking like fools.

There’s also a strain of social conservatism that animates the early scenes and puts The 15:17 to Paris at odds with Eastwood’s previous work. Though he’s an outspoken Republican who makes political films, Eastwood’s previous films have, for the most part, steered clear of divisive social politics. It is what has allowed them to work so well without becoming punching bags in ongoing culture wars, yet here he seems ready to jump into the fray. A scene in which a public school teacher callously suggests that Fischer’s son might have ADHD prompts her to send him to Christian school because “my God is bigger than your statistics!” It’s a line that belongs on Fox News or in one of those God’s Not Dead films. Later, the young actor playing Skarlatos runs for class president with a poster of him goofily holding an assault rifle in the air while standing in front of an American flag. He’s dejected by his classmates’ rejection of him, but it’s no wonder they weren’t impressed by his jingoistic campaigning. Later, Skarlatos takes his friends out in the woods to play with his airsoft rifles. The line “Let’s play war!” is made more chilling by the fact that he has a Full Metal Jacket poster on his bedroom wall — it doesn’t seem like he gets that film’s antiwar message, just its love of death and destruction. Eastwood and Blyskal seem more like they’re trying to make an infomercial for red state values than a feature film.

Things improve substantially when the story shifts to adulthood, where the three real-life participants play themselves. They’re obviously inexperienced, and Eastwood does little to help them through the experience, but the scenes are still charged by the simple fact that they feature the real men. When Skarlatos fails at his first military post and is transferred to another, the sense of dejection is made potent by the knowledge that these failures aren’t just to raise the stakes — he really failed, and his future in the military was uncertain.

Still, that pesky screenplay haunts. Perhaps a different storyteller could have made a Cassavetes-inspired film, using largely improvised dialogue to get at something that feels real, but Skarlatos, Stone, and Sadler are reciting film dialogue, and it just doesn’t work in their mouths. Experienced actors can make those words sound completely natural, but the three men don’t have the ability to hide that artifice.

It’s as if Eastwood finally awakens from a long nap when we get to the confrontation on the train. Even though the outcome of the scene is no surprise, it ranks among the director’s best work. There’s a strange paradox to this sequence: the men are so compelling that it’s possible to forget that they’re acting, yet the fact that they’re non-actors is what makes it so compelling. When one of them is seriously injured, it’s hard not to ponder what must have been running through his mind when he was first on the train, and then later when he recreated the events for the film. Did he fear for his life? Did that fear return when he shot the scene?

Even as the final confrontation seems to buoy the film, it also raises questions about the viewpoint. Although it’s billed as the story of three American heroes, there were actually three other men who helped subdue the attacker, two of whom play themselves. One of the men, an Armenian-American living in France, managed to wrest the terrorist’s rifle away before being shot by his hand gun. Why is this man’s story not worth telling? Because he had the effrontery to get shot?

Perhaps it’s a simple as an American filmmaker choosing to make a movie focusing on Americans. Maybe their friendship is the aspect that makes the story worth telling. But so much of the film plays like an airing of Eastwood’s grievances that it’s hard to really care about their lives. His last two films, American Sniper and Sully, were both excellent adaptations of true stories. There isn’t enough story in The 15:17 to Paris to hold a candle to those films.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot

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Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker

The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.

The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.

The Kingmaker Imelda

Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016. 

For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.

We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them. 

But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein. 

The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day. 

And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.

The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory. 

Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject. 

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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