David Mamet Double Feature – Part 2: Spartan (2004)

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Greetings all and sundry!

DavidMametThis is the second part of the David Mamet Double Bill. If you missed it, check out the review for The Spanish Prisoner (1997) from last month.

Spartan begins without fanfare in the hills and forests of what could be Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Bragg, North Carolina or Benning, in Georgia. As a group of elite multi service elite “candidates” endure day long, often changing exercises for selection into Delta Force. Overseen by a quietly confident Val Kilmer in.

SPARTAN (2004)

SPARTAN2004PosterMr. Kilmer’s “Been There. Done That” pedigree as Master Gunnery Sergeant, Robert Scott seems to be something of a lower tier celebrity at the event. And is sought out by Ranger candidate, Curtis (Derek Luke). And Marine Recon candidate, Jackie Black (Tia Texada), whose specialty is knife fighting. Might keep them in mind. Should the need arise.

That need arrives soon after a telephone call to Scott to be at a certain back road intersection to await a helicopter. To who knows where? Which turns out to be Boston. For a meeting with the Presidential Secret Service detail. A few nameless. faceless political fixers and the President’s Press Secretary, Burch (Ed O’Neil). Who is not long on details as to the current snafu of the men assigned to protect the President’s step daughter, Laura (Kristen Bell) screwed up their shift change. And created a window of opportunity for the Harvard student and wild child a chance to slip away to taste some of Boston’s night life.

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The responsible agent is interrogated and left alone for a moment. Time enough to dig out his his back up piece and take his own life. A major scale altercation ensues with lots of finger pointing and arguments, As Scott is taken aside by Burch and basically given Carte Blanche to track down, find and return the errant daughter.

Scott agrees and slips into a Secret Service uniform jacket and tracks down the few leads available. An older professor. And a rather flaky boyfriend. The boyfriend is braced trying to break into Laura’s mailbox and reveals little. Except that Laura had bleached her signature red hair and headed solo to the seamier, less friendly clubs in town. Scott returns to brief Burch as Curtis shows for backup. Burch gives Scott and Curtis forty eight hours to perform this minor miracle before Laura is noticed missing from classes Monday morning. And a press conference will be required.

The two head off to one club to talk to the bartender. Then the owner, Jerry. Who has better things to do past closing time. Scott exits. Waits and confronts Jerry. Bounces him off a chain link fence. Then a Dumpster, before breaking his arm to get the proper response to Scott’s monotone, “Where’s the girl, Jerry?”

It seems Laura left with some other girls to a down low brothel with connection to human trafficking. Burch tightens up the timeline. Should Laura’s bleach job start revealing red roots. And the bad guys finally figure who and what scale political leverage wedge has been delivered unto them.

Scott, Curtis and a detachment of agents raid the joint. Separate the girls. Corner the madam and gets more leads to follow. A call from a pay phone is traced to an unlikely location. To a beach house in the Hamptons used as a way station for selected chattel. Scott and Curtis arrive down beach from their objective. Scouting ahead of a larger contingent. Curtis takes a sniping position as Scott finds an entrance to the tumbled down shack. Scott finds three armed bad guys. Two Russian. One Middle Easterner. Curtis takes out one through a window. Scott wounds the others and another twist is added. The girl is missing, but left evidence of her being there. Has either been sent, or is en route to who knows where?

Further investigation reveals a name as well. A Lebanese national name Tariq Asani. Who’s in federal custody on kidnapping and sex trafficking charges. And is due for re location along with a felon facing lethal injection. Some heavy duty sleight of hand in the form of a faked gas station robbery allows Scott to off the annoying and useless con facing the needle. Worm himself into Tariq’s confidence in exchange for the prisoner’s sudden freedom. And come up with a final location. Dubai.

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Burch and company are briefed in on Scott’s progress. And Scott heads off to the Hamptons to ask some questions of family staff and house keepers. Finding pay dirt with divorced, older wife and Laura’s mother (Deborah Bartlett) and her Secret Service protector, (Anne Morgan). Who reveal that her husband used Laura’s being at Harvard as a cover for his sexual proclivities. And pulled the protective detail off his step daughter!

Armed with this ammunition. Which could easily upset an upcoming election. Scott is dissuaded by continuous news reports of The First Daughter and professor drowned while sailing off Martha’s Vineyard. Submerges deep off the grid. Wisely spends a large cash advance to recruit Sgt. Jackie Black. Arrange for their transit to Dubai. And the delivery of a large shipping container as a Base of Operations. Plus a chartered flight out to Paris. Before making a final attempt to bring his principal back.

I’ll leave it right here to retain the integrity of spoiler territory.

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

Certainly one of Mr. Mamet’s “busiest” projects. With changes in location too many to mention. Though with a core cadre of character actors doing more than holding their own. As they talk around the problem(s) and objective(s) at hand with some, but not an excessive amount of the writer’s trademark profanity. Chief amongst them, Ed O’Neil and Mr. Kilmer. With the former adding dry gravity to his words. While the latter adds occasional humor to offset by his matter of fact, intimated, sometimes intimidating use of force.

It’s also intriguing to see the ingenuity, coordination and wherewithal of the invisible alphabet soup of the military’s vast covert operations capability. Which can dialed up and brought to the fore. With very few being any the wiser.

Cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia shows a flair for medium range and occasionally shadowy close ups. Taking advantage of Boston’s grimy offerings, And tight, claustrophobic and forgotten back rooms. Then flipping the script with tight and crowded, dusty, sweaty sand stone California sets substituting for Dubai. Solidly backed up by lighting, electrical, sound and stunt crews too numerous to mention.

What Makes This Film Great?

A solid and well detailed look and feel (With the aid of former Arny Command Sergeant Major and Delta operator, Eric L. Haney) at what would later evolve into CBS’s and Mr. Mamet’s television series, ‘The Unit’. With Val Kilmer leading the charge admirably before basically falling off the map. Basically playing someone who is not a “thinker” or “arranger”. But a “shooter”. The guy those in charge send out to negate obstructions and fix things. Hopefully, without accumulating too many arrows in his back!

And in this arena. Mr. Kilmer excels. With a straightforward attitude. Sometimes offset with a dash of charm when required. Backed up by a solid percussion. brass and synthesized soundtrack led by Mark Isham to twist tension through the tale’s compact 107 minutes.

Spartan2004_BillMacyVery high marks also for Mamet stalwart, William H. Macy. Who excels as political Presidential protector, Stoddard. Who doesn’t make his presence known until the film’s final moments. But the wait is well worth the effort!

Author’s Note: Spartan is available in its entirety on YouTube. As well as associated clips and interviews.


Check out Jack’s other posts and reviews


Agree or Disagree? The Floor Is Open For Discussion.

FlixChatter Double Reviews: Beyond the Lights & Begin Again

Neither one of these two indie films were even on my radar but I’m sure glad I got to see them!  Beyond the Lights is currently out in select theaters and Begin Again are now available on VOD.

Beyond the Lights 

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The first time I learned about this movie was when I saw a photo of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in full S&M getup with purple hair and I thought, is that the actress from Belle? I absolutely loved her in that movie so she’s definitely the main draw for me to see this.

The film introduces us to the protagonist Noni Jean when she’s in her early teens. Raised by her driven & ruthless single mother Macy (Minnie Driver) who took her to various talent contests, it’s apparent that failure is not an option for her. Fast forward over a decade later, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has blossomed into a Rihana-like pop star on the brink of superstardom. She’s just won a Billboard Music award as part of a hip-hop duo with Kid Culprit (played by real life rapper Machine Gun Kelly). Noni is seemingly at the top of her game, being touted as a hot new artist with fans and paparazzi and throng of fans hot on her trail. But the pressure of fame drives Noni to the point of self destruction, as the more famous she becomes, the more she feels invisible. Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), a young cop who’s assigned to be her security that night saves her just in the nick of time. ‘I see you,’ he says, and somehow that gives Noni just enough hope in her to keep going.

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Noni and Kaz are inevitably drawn to each other, and it’s no brainer that the two end up together. Some people compare this film to The Bodyguard but I honestly never thought of that movie the entire time I was watching this. For one, the relationship between the two characters are more on equal footing as Kaz isn’t technically working for Noni here and Noni herself isn’t quite in the same level as Whitney Huston’s character who’s already reached superstar status.

Though at first glance this film may appear as a romantic drama, it’s actually so much more than that. Yes there are romance and romantic scenes, but it’s all part of Noni’s journey of self-discovery and being able to stand on her own two feet. It’s also a commentary on the image-obsessed music industry that exploit female sexuality to sell records. The outfits that Noni wear in the movie would make even Lady Gaga blush [or maybe not], there’s one particular outfit where her upper body is only covered by a string of chains and nothing else. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that Noni is metaphorically and literally in chains, the fact that she’s always in the shadow of her rapper partner and is also controlled by her mother within an inch of her life.

BeyondtheLights_StillsBy the same token, Kaz’s life is in a way also controlled by external influences who push him for a political career. He’s also got an ambitious police captain father (Danny Glover) with his powerful allies and the pressure is getting to him as well. It’s an interesting parallel life story but the movie is more about Noni, which is truly the beating heart of the movie.

Mbatha-Raw is astounding in yet another career-making performance that shows her acting chops and versatility. Noni requires a tremendous physical as well as emotional commitment from the actor, and the British actress totally owned her role. I certainly hope she’ll get some kind of recognition come award season and that Hollywood continue to cast her in prominent roles. I also love the casting of Minnie Driver here, who I think is an underrated actress. Though I don’t agree with Macy’s actions, I don’t see her as a *villain* and the film does give us a glimpse into her character’s motivations.

The film itself is not perfect, there are moments that feel awkward or too schmaltzy. Pacing also feels a bit off as some scenes feel more drawn-out than they should be. The scene of Noni & Kaz on the plane makes me cringe, and Nate Parker‘s constant shirtless scenes also feel gratuitous that it made me laugh. That said, I’m impressed by Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s direction and the story kept me engaged and fully-invested in the main character. Last but not least, the music is definitely the highlight here, thanks to Mark Isham‘s emotive score. The song Blackbird holds a special meaning to Noni and by the time she sung a rendition of it towards the end, I wanted to get up and cheer for her!

This film seems to be under most people’s radar but I really hope that people would give it a look. I know I’d readily watch this again and the soundtrack is definitely worth buying!

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Begin Again

BeginAgainBnrThis movie wasn’t even on my radar until fairly recently, and I haven’t seen Once yet which was Director John Carnet‘s critically-acclaimed debut. Well, I like Carney’s storytelling style and he’s assembled a great cast to tell the story.

Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a distressed record producer of an indie label who’s been having a very bad day. Clashing with his business partner that leads to him losing his job and feeling estranged from his ex-wife and teenage daughter, he ends his day at a bar to drink his woes away. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley‘s Greta is nursing a broken heart having just split from his musician boyfriend and was dragged to perform a song by his BFF in attempt to cheer her up. Well it’s not exactly a meet cute, but you know that their encounter somehow would change their lives profoundly.

BeginAgainStillsThe film is told partly in parallel between the two characters, giving us a glimpse into their lives and how they intersect. The acting felt so natural and right away I connected with the two leads and their journey. This might be one of my fave Keira Knightley‘s performances and nice to see her portraying a plain and relatable girl, a role she seems to relish and have fun playing. Ruffalo is a reliable and charming actor and he’s just so likable and endearing here even at the moment of a life crisis. He embodies an artistic and idealistic guy who can *see* and feel music so deeply and he’s so convincing at it. The film took us on a ride with Dan & Greta sharing music on their iPods and hanging out together around NYC (which could double as the city’s tourism video). Music is infused throughout the film and so there are lovely musical moments here. Two of my fave scenes are featured in this week’s music break, but there’s also a fun one when the group play on a rooftop.

I LOVE the spontaneity and adventurous spirit as Dan assemble a group of amateur talents to make up a band for Greta and the recording process in various places – in an alley, rooftop and even a subway station – is fun to watch. This movie is so enjoyable and engaging that I even tolerate seeing Adam Levine playing a douche bag (convincingly, natch) but I have to admit he’s pretty decent here and I could see why they cast him. James Corden and Hailee Steinfeld also lend memorable supporting roles as Keira’s BFF and Mark’s daughter respectively, though Catherine Keener is a bit underutilized. Overall though, this is Dan and Greta’s story and both Ruffalo and Knightley shine in their roles.

The finale isn’t tied up in a neat little bow which I think gives the story even more poignancy, the way Roman Holiday was to me. Of course parts of me want a happy ending, but the more I think about it, I like it the way it is and there’s a genuine element of surprise when things don’t go as you expect it. I can’t recommend this movie enough, and trust me folks, you won’t be disappointed!

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Have you seen these films? Well, what did you think?

Music Break: Beyond the Lights & Begin Again

This past week I saw two wonderful music-themed films and the soundtracks have been playing in my head since. So I figure why not feature both of them in one post since I’m planning to post a double review of them later in the week.

Both films feature a female protagonist and both stories offer interesting commentaries on the music industries from two VERY different spectrum. So take a listen at my favorite tracks from both films …

BeyondtheLightsPosterThis one is my absolute favorite… it’s emotive and stirring, especially when it’s sung by Gugu Mbatha-Raw‘s Noni towards the end of the film. It’s a defiant song that becomes the unofficial anthem for her at a pivotal point in her life. I love love the melody of the song and the beautiful arrangement by Mark Isham, it’s perhaps one of my favorite songs of the year so far. I was already so impressed by Gugu in Belle, but she totally blew me away here. Her transformation into a pop-star persona is incredible, and she clearly has the vocal chops to actually be a recording artist for real!

This second one is pleasant but more familiar, perhaps because it’s written by Diane Warren, who’s responsible for so many movies’ romantic ballads. It’s performed by Rita Ora.

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I knew there’ll be some awesome music featured in this one, as Margaret already featured them in her Soundtrack Wednesday post. I still want to feature ’em again here, especially the two soulful ones sung by Keira Knightley. I had no idea she could sing so well and with such raw emotion. I LOVE this scene when Mark Ruffalo‘s character first saw her singing in a bar and his reaction to her singing is so endearing.

I had to include this awesome video posted by Interscope Records. It’s a cute & poignant scene featuring Keira and James Corden as they record a song together as a voice mail message. The melody is wonderful but the lyrics are so moving and really, who can’t relate to a broken heart? We’ve all been there, if only I knew how to turn my feelings into such beautiful music!


Hope you enjoyed the music break! Have you seen either one of these films?