Guest Review: The Promise (2017)

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Directed By: Terry George
Written By: Terry George, Robin Swicord
Runtime: 2 hrs 13 minutes

It has taken more than ten years for Terry George to return from Hotel Rwanda with another sweeping historical narrative – again about genocide. The Promise is a sobering, beautiful disappointment. The film has a beautiful score and decent cinematography, but is hindered by two competing and uncomplimentary story-lines, flawed casting, and lackluster performances by usually gifted actors.
One thing that The Promise does right is its dogged determination – at least in the beginning – to accurately recreate the Ottoman Empire at its peak. The diversity of the Ottoman Empire is highlighted in the script and on the screen: crowded streets and classrooms alike brim with a rainbow of skin colors and a wide variety of clothing styles. This attention to detail falls to the wayside later on: extras become less and less Armenian with every passing scene, leaving me wondering if the casting department doubts an audience’s ability to see facial features through dirt.

That initial pursuit of realistic cultural immersion was also highlighted in moments like the one when our stars leave a stuffy party full of people in European clothing to hit up the nearby belly dancing club where they drink absinthe, sugar cube ritual and all. The effort to establish the Ottoman Empire as a progressive, inclusive, educated, and wealthy place is palpable.

Unfortunately, The Promise falls short constantly. The focus of the film is what can only be described as a love square: one man is betrothed to a woman but he falls in love with a different woman who is already romantically involved with another man, but she also falls in love with that first man. On its own, this might be a decent movie, but this love square has been placed in the foreground of a genocide. The result is a bad love story (because the backdrop is too dark) and a bad historical drama (because the love story is more carefully developed than the history).
The flashes of the Armenian Genocide that we get are stark: labor camps, cattle trains full of people, violent killings, riots, executions, people on the run and trying to hide. They deserve a telling that does not hide them behind a petty romantic squabble. This is a story that is more than 100 years old and is still illegal to tell in Turkey. 1.5 million people were killed in five years. That story can be told without a love story.

Casting was poor. Oscar Isaac is a great actor, but why a man who is nearly 40 years old is playing a medical student who is betrothed to be married in two years is completely beyond me. He also does not look particularly Armenian. Neither does Charlotte Le Bon, who plays his romantic interest. Angela Sarafyan who, is both a phenomenal actress and an Armenian was cast in a lesser role. I would have liked to see her as the leading actress and a younger, more Armenian man in the place of Isaac.

I get the feeling that this set was not especially actor friendly, which is evident in a lot of lackluster performances. Christian Bale’s character (which should not exist, but that’s a rant about American centrism that we can save for another day) had many a stale outburst. Marwan Kenzari gave a consistently mediocre performance. Charlotte Le Bon seemed out of place in the 20th Century.

It is unfortunate that The Promise fails in its execution because the film explores many prescient themes:

In what ways might people respond to an atrocity? What compromises of our own character might we make when put in a difficult situation? How do we know what side of a story is the true one, both journalistically and personally? What sacrifices might we make for the sake of our families and our friends?

I can only hope that we’ll get the opportunity to explore those questions in a different movie. With any luck, it will be about the Armenian Genocide, because clearly we still haven’t found it in ourselves to tell that story in the way it deserves to be told.


hollyHolly P. is a twenty-something millennial who enjoys shouting at people on the internet, riding her bicycle, and overbooking her schedule. She prefers storytelling that has a point and comedy that isn’t mean. Her favorite movies are Aladdin, the Watchmen (even though the book was way better), and Hot Fuzz.  She’s seen every Lord of the Rings movie at least a dozen times.  You can follow her @tertiaryhep on twitter or @hollyhollyoxenfreee on Instagram. She’s also on Tinder, but if you find her there she’ll probably ghost on you because wtf is dating in the 21st century.


Have you seen ‘The Promise’? Well, what did you think? 

Rental Pick: Woman in Gold (2015)

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Maria Altmann, an octogenarian Jewish refugee, takes on the Austrian government to recover artwork she believes rightfully belongs to her family.

Let me start by saying that Dame Helen Mirren is one of my favorite actresses I’d watch in practically anything. She’s easily one of the best things of any film, including this one.

As a woman whose torn apart from her family in Vienna, Maria Altmann is given the chance to take back what’s rightfully hers, but she must also face her dark past in the process. Woman in Gold has a historical significance, but what drew me to the story is the personal connection.
WomanInGold_Mirren_MaslanyFollowing her sister’s funeral, Maria discovered letters dating back to the 40s that prompted her to reclaim her family’s artwork. She enlisted help from an inexperienced lawyer who happened to be the son of a friend, Randol ‘Randy’ Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). I have to admit I’m not enthused on Reynolds’ casting and in the end, his performance confirmed my dread.

The film utilizes several flashback sequences of Maria’s once-blissful life with her affluent family. It’s a close-knit Jewish family but she’s her aunt Adele’s favorite (Antje Traue), who was the subject of famed Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also called The Woman in Gold, hence the title) is practically the Mona Lisa of Austria. Though the monetary value is clearly substantial, the personal value is what’s priceless to Maria. I find myself more drawn to the flashback scenes, I was quite impressed by Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria. That goodbye scene with her parents was such a tearjerker.

WomanInGold_Antje_PaintingIn fact, it felt like a different film entirely as the tone is far more serious and emotional. In fact, the scenes where Maria and her then husband Fritz (Max Irons) were chased by the Nazi officers was pretty intense. In contrast to the contemporary scenes in both L.A. and Vienna, the tone is rather whimsical and at times it didn’t seem to have the gravitas the story deserves. Now, I don’t blame Reynolds entirely, as it’s more of a writing and directing issue, but his casting doesn’t help. He’s fine when the role requires him to be whimsical, but I find him entirely unconvincing in the emotional scenes. I just don’t think he’s got dramatic chops, though I suppose I should give him props for trying. It’s quite infuriating to see a perfectly capable actor like Daniel Brühl [as the Austrian journalist who helped Maria’s cause] not given much to do.

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Overall I enjoyed this film, there are some emotional as well as fun moments sprinkled throughout. Yet, whenever the film hit a particularly poignant note, the next scene strikes an entirely different note that it seems rather jarring. I understand that perhaps director Simon Curtis injected humor to make the film less heavy-handed, but the movie became so uneven in the process.

That said, if you’re intrigued by the story, this is certainly worth a rent. It’s not exactly a work of art by any means, but I definitely like it more than Monuments Men. Of course having Helen Mirren in the lead makes the film all the more fascinating. I’d still recommend this one if you like historical dramas, I find the flashback scenes in Austria to be especially compelling.

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Have you seen Woman in Gold? What did you think?

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Weekend Roundup: ENDGAME review

It’s another s-l-o-w week at the box office when the number one movie is a small-budget horror flick The Possession and it barely cracked $10 million! I skipped the cinema this weekend, though I was initially anticipating The Cold Light Of Day. But the utterly dismal critical rating (9% on rotten tomatoes!!) dissuaded me for shelling out 10 bucks to see it, no matter how much I LOVE Henry Cavill. Ah well, best to just wait for the rental methinks.

So Friday night, my hubby and I decided to see a little-seen thriller/drama ENDGAME set during Apartheid in South Africa. I’m glad I stumbled upon this film because I had never heard of it before. I was just looking at the positive reviews of Dredd 3D and was curious who had directed it, which brought me to Pete Travis. Seems like nobody has seen this film as I asked three times on Twitter about it and got zero response. Only my pal Ted replied saying he hasn’t even heard of it! Ah well, read my mini review below, I think it’s a worthy film.

I also got to see Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The reason I’m curious to see it is because a few weeks ago I heard that Keanu was reportedly keen on making Bill & Ted 3! And since I haven’t seen the original, I though what the heck. Well, it’s definitely a silly movie in the vein of Wayne’s World, but it’s good fun and quite a hoot to see how Keanu hasn’t aged that much in 23 years!!

Anyway, here’s my review of:

ENDGAME (2009)

apartheid |əˈpärtˌ(h)āt; -ˌ(h)īt|
(in South Africa) a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race.

The subject matter is quite heartbreaking, as is any movie about racial segregation. Based upon the book The Fall of Apartheid by Robert Harvey, the movie is a dramatization of the covert discussions between the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party, that brought down the Apartheid regime.

It starts off with a suspenseful scene of Jonny Lee Miller‘s character being ‘smuggled’ into the black township to hear about the suffering of the black Africans. I thought he was a doctor at first, but it turns out Michael Young is a businessman, a public affairs director for Consolidated Gold Fields, a British gold-mining company. Young ends up being the key individual who brought about the controversial secret meetings between the two opposing parties, down to securing a country house in Somerset, England to host the talks.

For a film that barely has any action or shootouts, the level of suspense is quite high. Despite not having a lot of knowledge about who the main key players are, I quickly sympathize with what each of the players signed on to, and the risk that came with it. Travis’ direction depicts the predicament subtly but efficiently, it’s a slow build-up to the momentum but he manages to keep it engaging.

I did get a bit dizzy from the hand-held camera work used in some scenes, and in this case I don’t think it’s really all that necessary to use this technique. Fortunately, there are a lot going for it here that keeps me intrigued. The filming location in Cape Town definitely helps enhance the authenticity and atmosphere, but what really sells the film for me is the cast, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor as Thabo Mbeki from the ANC side. Ejiofor has this aura of intelligence and gravitas that is perfect for his role, and he also carries the emotional moments very well. There’s a scene where he’s overwhelmed with shock and fear following a car chase and you just feel he’s thisclose to falling apart.

The rest of the supporting cast is full of B-list actors who are excellent in their roles. Miller does a good job as not only the ‘instigator’ but also the ‘moderator’ of sort, and he depicts the role of a quiet hero in a perfectly-understated way. At first I thought that Mark Strong‘s character is the usual bad guy type, but there’s actually more to it than meets the eye. The only one I wasn’t too keen on is William Hurt as philosophy professor Willie Esterhuyse, but mostly because I can’t understand most of the things he’s saying with his odd Afrikaans accent. But yet the crucial scenes between him and Ejiofor are terrific, their slow bond of trust is intriguing to watch, those scenes are one of my favorite parts in the movie. Derek Jacobi also has a brief cameo here as Miller’s boss, but it’s always nice to see him deliver lines the only way he could. Last but not least, NYC actor Clarke Peters delivers an emphatic performance as Nelson Mandela, the thing that strikes me about the quiet hero is how his inner strength helps him to stay calm during even the bleakest moments of his life. It’s truly extraordinary what he went through, but even more remarkable is how he survived such an ordeal with grace.

At the end of the film, some facts are shown as to what happens to the real-life characters following the meeting. Though it still take years before the reign of Apartheid ended, it showed what the courage of a few brave men could do and the power of hope in humanity. I highly recommend this one. It’s a sophisticated historical drama on an important subject that’s well-written and well-acted. It’s not a ‘sensational’ movie, uplifting without being emotionally-manipulative, which is perhaps why it flew under the radar.

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Thoughts about this movie? Also, did you see anything good this past weekend?