by Bill Stamets

“Angel Has Fallen” – Protecting a president from a traitor and a profiteer

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on August 27, 2019

Angel Has Fallen
directed by Ric Roman Waugh
written by Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook & Ric Roman Waugh
story by Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt, based on characters created by Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt.
acted by Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Danny Huston, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lance Reddick, Tim Blake Nelson, Piper Perabo, Nick Nolte
MPAA-rated R for violence and language throughout.
running time 114 minutes
by Bill Stamets

United States Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) in the Presidential Protection Division goes to work and before he gets home– he puts in a lot of overtime– SUVs, semis, motorcycles, boats and helicopters will crash, burn or blow up; landmarks, monuments and buildings will topple in clouds of white dust and smoke like the collapsing World Trade Center; and public servants, private contractors, arms dealers, terrorists and civilians will die not of natural causes.

Gerard Butler stars as Mike Banning in “Olympus Has Fallen” (2013), “London Has Fallen” (2016) and now “Angel Has Fallen.” Butler is a producer on all three films, directed by three different directors. Banning heroically protects the president in all three president-in-peril installments. Duty calls for stabbing bad guys through their skulls.

Above par action-thriller product directed Ric Roman Waugh, “Angel Has Fallen” gets into the head of Banning amidst the mayhem. Three different characters will tell him things they see in his eyes. Waugh directed “That Which I Love Destroys Me” about traumatized Iraq vets. Reworded, the title of that 2015 documentary turns into a repeated line in “Angel Has Fallen” but no one will will say PTSD out loud.

Workplace stressors have scarred more than Banning’s spinal cord. His doctor warns: “You’re a disaster waiting to happen.” He has an enemy within. So does the Oval Office.

Banning’s nemesis in “Olympus Has Fallen” was a North Korean terrorist embedded in the inner circle of South Korea’s prime minister. In “London Has Fallen” it was a terrorist in Yemen. Both targeted Banning’s protectee. Now the target is President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman).

Trumbull was Speaker of the House in 2013 and Vice President in 2016. Banning’s own career path: White House detail, transferred to U. S. Treasury, reassigned back to the White House, and now he is in line for Director of Secret Service. When that doctor– the fourth he’s seen in the past six months for migraines, dizzy spells and insomnia– asks his about his “line of work” Banning lies, “Computer sales.”

Banning is a target too. Hunted by bad guys– and by good guys this time. “The Hero Becomes The Fugitive,” states the film’s poster. The first words we hear are: “Target is on the move.” Outnumbered by heavily armed operatives, Banning takes violent evasive measures inside an abandoned industrial building. As he exits a paint ball pellet hits his upper chest and terminates a highly realistic training exercise. “Fuck! In the fucking heart. I think I’m fucking dead,” Banning shouts with a grin to former army buddy Wade Jennings (Danny Huston).

Jennings is a civilian in the private sector now. He runs Salient Global on a 5,000-acre site in Virginia and desperately needs contracts from the Department of Defense. Typically cast as a disloyal weasel, Huston from the get-go looks like bad news for our designated good guy. Of course one of the first lines Huston’s character delivers to Butler’s character is: “As they say, looks can be deceiving.” He will repeat variants of that truism. The transparency is unsubtle.

“You can come up with any scenario you want here and put it to the test,” Jennings boasts to Banning. That hunt in the opening scene turns out to be a run-through for an interstate chase with real bullets that takes up most of the 114-minute running time with Banning on the run and Trumbull in a hospital.

Jennings and his ex-military minions deploy killer drones in an attempt to assassinate the president during a fishing trip on Banning’s watch. Salient’s terrifying A.I. swarm is a thrill to watch in action. Because the bad guys in the “Fallen” franchise always have the coolest tech. Banning at times must get by with just his knife, plus guns borrowed from dead guys.

Each black-winged drone is outfitted with long-range lensed cameras, facial recognition software and personnel dossiers, including head shots, of the entire Secret Service team on duty. Precision targeting ensues. Banning is purposely spared. He must survive for the Salient scenario to work.

Evidence planted in advance by Jennings soon enough surfaces to incriminate the president’s trusted agent as a treasonous insider colluding with the Kremlin. Jennings earlier placed $10 million in an offshore account he secretly created in Banning’s name. Digital breadcrumbs lead “to a state-owned bank in Moscow.” Another one of those looks designed to deceive. Banning is framed as a sell-out.

“President Trumbull’s top guardian angel has fallen tonight,” intones a TV newscaster, helping us get the film’s title. (“Angel” was the classified callsign for Air Force One when President Bush was in the air on 9/11.) The “Angel Has Fallen” screenplay outsources a lot of plot exposition to TV clips with the obligatory Breaking News chyron. In “Olympus Has Fallen” we overheard an emergency transmission tipping us that “Olympus” was the Secret Service code name for the White House. Three months after its 2013 release, another action-thriller with the same setting and set-up hit theaters; its title was “White House Down.”

“Angel Has Fallen” screenwriters Robert Mark Kamen, Matt Cook and Waugh ground more of their plot in the beltway than geopolitics. In the two prior “Fallen” films screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt made up names for heads of state– South Korea, U.K., Canada, France Italy, Japan– except for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was named once but not seen in “London Has Fallen.” Creighton and Benedikt, who share a “story by” credit in “Angel Has Fallen,” also invented an arch-terrorist for “London Has Fallen.” Onscreen text identified his location as Sana’a, Yemen.

U.S. President Donald Trump is out of the picture. “Angel Has Fallen” appears to digitally erase him from news video appearing to show a G20 group photo op wherein Morgan Freeman’s character appears to stand near Putin. As Jennings likes to say, “looks can be deceiving.” The end credits of “Angel Has Fallen” name the networks– CNN, FOX, MSNBC– of TV reporters who are played by actors.

A more telling real world reference is when Jennings cites government cutbacks that affected his company “after the Blackwater shit happened.” Blackwater USA was a Salient-like private military and security contractor for the Department of Defense, Department of State, and Central Intelligence Agency. “We became the ultimate tool in the war on terror, pushing a thousand contractors into Iraq and hundreds more into Afghanistan,” boasted former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince in his 2013 book with Davin Coburn.

Prince– his sister Betsy DeVos is Trump’s Secretary of Education– launched the company in 1998 on a 6,000 acre site in North Carolina near the Virginia border. On October 12, 2002 terrorists hit the U.S.S. Cole in Aden, Yemen. That got Blackwater a $35.7 million contract for “force protection training” of U.S. Navy sailors. Between 2004 and 2007 Blackwater suffered and inflicted casualties in Baghdad, Fallujah and Najaf. Since then the controversial company changed its name twice.

When Jennings mentions “the Blackwater shit” he means things like Blackwater killing 17 civilians in Nisour Square on September 16, 2007. The Independent of London called it “Baghdad’s `Bloody Sunday’” in a September 21 headline. “I had to investigate some of Salient’s messes when I was over in Iraq,” notes FBI Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith), who confronts Jennings in the course of investigating the Trumbull assassination attempt.

The most topical lines in “Angel Has Fallen” come from Vice President Kirby (Tim Blake Nelson), who is sworn in as acting President and has no first name for some reason. Claiming that suspect Banning had “full support of top levels of the Russian government,” Kirby warns if the U.S. takes no action against the Russians “they’ll remain ambiguous as to their involvement so we look weak just like with their election tampering.” To not look weak, Kirby continues: “ I have just signed an executive order calling for the use of a bold and strong private contractor force to be employed in our strategy.” Salient will get what we can presume is a big no-bid contract. There’s a hostile take-over inside the White House.

“Fallen” film evildoers are variously motivated by profit, revenge and lastly ideology.

In “Olympus” Kang (Rick Yune) told kidnapped U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart): “I’m working for justice, to give millions of starving men, women, and children a chance at more than just subsistence. To end the civil war your country interrupted so long ago.” For revenge he hacked warheads in U.S. missile silos. “Your country will be a cold dark nuclear wasteland. Now too America shall know suffering and famine,” he predicted.

“London” opens with a newscaster briefing us: “International security experts say the Barkawi family is now instigating violence in remote capitals to foster instability and thus fuel massive arms sales around the globe.” Vice President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) explained: “This man is responsible for more deaths than the plague. Sells arms to every failed state in the world. He has a vast array of connections. Terrorists, mercenaries, corporations.” G-8 leaders authorized a U.S. drone strike targeting Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul) at his daughter’s wedding. He survived. So did his two sons. The bride did not. Barkawi sought revenge.

“Angel” includes a White House press conference before Trumbull goes fishing. Reporters ask: “Mr President, with Russia continuing to extend its military well beyond its borders what is your strategy from stopping them from reforming the old Soviet Union?” and “There are rumors in the White House that your new foreign policy will broaden the use of private contractors to help bolster American troops who remain scattered around the globe. Is there any truth to that?” Pissed at the leak underlying the latter question, Trumbull tersely vents, “I’m tired, sick and tired, of a handful of people profiting from our military” and walks out.

Not that anyone invested in “Angel Has Fallen” is anti-profit. Lionsgate press notes quote producer Butler: “[W]e wanted to put in as many epic sequences as we could possibly fit. That’s exactly what they accomplished. Olympus and London each had about 13 action sequences. Here we’ve upped that to 23 sequences, which is a lot. It never stops. And they worked to make sure the audience feels every bump and explosion.”

Banning is not into nuancing international policy. In the first two films he told overseas bad guys to go back to the United People’s Front of Who-Gives-a-Fuck and Fuckheadistan, respectively. In “Angel Has Fallen” the battered agent turns inward, heading into a theta wave state at a Zero Gravity Center to get “unfucked.”

©2019 Bill Stamets


What I Did Not See in “All I See is You”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on November 2, 2017

“All I See is You”
directed by Marc Forster
written by Marc Forster & Sean Conway
acted by Blake Lively, Jason Clarke, Yvonne Strahovski, Danny Huston
presented by SC International Pictures
rated R for strong sexual content/nudity, and language
running time: 110 minutes


I did not get “All I See is You”

a) I did not notice the right things and connect them the right way.
b) The film is unambiguously about ambiguity and I did not get that.
c) The filmmakers incompetently crafted the uncertainty they sought.
That is, the motives of two key characters are indistinct in ways that did interest me.

I can see all of the above being partly true. It can be a treat or a chore to disambiguate clues and parry misdirection in a film. It depends on the spectator’s inclination to collude with the director. “I would prefer not to,” to quote the title character of Herman Melville’s 1853 story ‘‘Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,’’ scrivened a year after his “Pierre: or, the Ambiguities.”

Director Marc Forster is versatile, with credits including “World War Z,” “Machine Gun Preacher,” “Quantum of Solace,” “The Kite Runner” and “Stay.” His “Stranger Than Fiction” and “Finding Neverland” shuttle with finesse between the inner life of an author and the lived truth of other characters. Neither film is psychologically puzzling like “All I See is You.”

Before making his mark in 2001 with “Monster’s Ball,” Forster directed three features that he co-wrote. The first was the unreleased “Loungers,” shot on 16mm in 1995. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, the “storyline” of this “experimental absurdist musical” was “A lounge singer hires his sister, who suffers from amnesia, to kill their parents.”

Forster is co-writer of “All I See Is You” with Sean Conway. The “I” and “You” in the title possibly refer to both sightless Gina (Blake Lively) and her sighted husband James (Jason Clarke). Flashbacks to Gina’s childhood glimpse a car accident in Spain. Her parents died. She and her sister survived. This is when Gina lost her sight. The plot skips her years prior to marrying James and moving to Bangkok where he works in insurance. An operation restores vision to Gina’s right eye. Her left one was irreparably damaged.

What her new sight changes in her life is unclear. Does James change? Then Gina’s one good eye starts to go bad. Lies are told. The film is not lying to viewers but Forster and Conway go too far in not spelling out too much of what’s going on.

The press notes for “All I See is You” refer to “an almost perfect marriage.” In the pre-operative part of the story I saw no obvious imperfections. The couple’s good-natured disagreements usually end in laughter.

Post-operative Gina dyes her hair blond, adopts a neighbor’s elderly dog, and goes house-hunting. Making choices on her own is a side effect of seeing again. James, in turn, surprises her with a trip to Spain where they honeymooned and her sister lives now. There’s a slightly sharper argument about whether they are staying in “the exact same suite” they booked years ago. She is sure it’s different. He admits he lied about it for some reason. After they return to their high-rise apartment in Thailand, he buys the house Gina likes without telling her.

Sexual tension arises, even if this was not a pre-existing condition for the couple. James is concerned with what Gina sees and how others see her. On a night-time stroll at the Spanish resort they pass a beachfront room where a naked couple stands by their sliding glass door, making love with the lights on. James tells Gina she doesn’t want to see that. On a night out, James refuses to join his wife, her sister and brother-in-law when they take in a sex show at a club. One night in their train compartment Gina binds her husband’s wrists for some martial experimentation. And she records it. James is neither amused nor aroused.

Back in Bangkok, the couple gets ready for a big deal dinner with James’ work associates. James is taken aback at her look. “I just never seen my wife in a dress like that before,” he says. “I guess it’s not really you, huh?” Gina counters: “Well we don’t really know who me is, do we?” Me neither, at this point.

Another exchange underscores a mutually impaired regard.
“Did you love me more before?” –Gina.
“When you were blind?” –James
“Uh uh.” –Gina
“I could ask youth same thing.” –James
“No I asked you.” –Gina

All we may know for certain is what two doctors tell James and Gina– in the absence of the other. His doctor tells him he is infertile. Her doctor tells her the eyedrops she is presently applying are ineffective; a lab test shows they lack the prescribed antibiotic for her corneal transplant and iris reconstruction. That accounts for the inflammation and her failing vision, if not what occurred with her medicine. Neither spouse passes along those test results to the other. Both findings will put the couple in a bad light. At least from our perspective.

Gina’s eye surgeon is a tad shady. Dr. Hughes is played by Danny Huston, frequently found in the role of an unreliable character. Although the credits include an Eye Consultant, Dr. Hughs uses the improbable expression “interocular lens implantation.” That would mean implanting an eye midway between his patient’s right and left eyes, where mystical lore locates a “third eye.”

The cure of a blind lover figures in many French novels and plays between 1760–1830, notes University of Michigan lit prof William Paulson. “The eye surgeon was to prove an ambiguous figure in this literature, sometimes a virtuous hero of enlightened science, sometimes a vain old schemer, sometimes an out-and-out charlatan.” One instance in this genre was “The Blind Man Who Refused to See,” a story by Chevalier de Cerfvol in 1771. Identified with France’s “populationist” camp, he opposed celibacy and penned nine books advocating legal divorce.

In her 1824 pamphlet “Reflections on the Physical and Moral Condition of the Blind,” a 22-year-old blind woman named Thérèse-Adèle Husson cautioned against the blind wedding the blind. She sketched a dire prospect for such a match. “If this portrait is horrifying, that of a young, unmarried blind woman marrying a sighted man is even worse… I beseech women deprived of sight but with some money to live and die keeping hold of their precious freedom.”

“I’m pregnant,” Gina tells James towards the end of “All I See is You.”

Mating by the blind vexed Lucien Howe, an eye doctor and eugenicist who headed the Buffalo Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis and chaired the Committee of Hereditary Blindness in the Ophthalmology Section of the American Medical Association. At a June 1918 AMA meeting in Chicago he proposed: “It is unjust to the blind to allow them to be brought into existence simply to lead miserable lives. It is unjust to taxpayers to be compelled to support them.” The currently blind and kin of the congenitally blind would need to post up to $14,000 in bond to qualify for a marriage license.

Howe also suggested legislators let “innocent taxpayers” block “cacogenic marriages”: “When a man and woman contemplate marriage, if a visual defect exists in one or both of the contracting parties, or in the family of either, so apparent that any taxpayer fears that the children of such a union are liable to become public charges, for which that taxpayer would probably be assessed, then such taxpayer, on guaranteeing the legal costs, may apply to the County Judge for an injunction against such a marriage.”

“I am of the opinion that a really large percentage of the blindness is caused simply by neglect in early childhood,” stated Howe in 1893. He singled out German-American midwives– “not infrequently ignorant and careless in the extreme.” Howe also used the singular “woman” for all womankind. “I use that word in the generic sense, as including not simply the married woman, but that very considerable number– I think about 4,000,000– of the unmarried women, because they have motherly instincts, and if they are not married, they expect to be.”

On January 4, 1918 Howe appeared before the Committee on Woman Suffrage in the House of Representatives for over an hour. Women ought to deal with “infant mortality” instead of seek suffrage, he urged. Chairman John E. Raker: “You lay this loss in infantile life to woman, do you?” “Very, very likely,” answered Howe. “[W]omen should correct those defects as promptly and completely as possible… [W]e should have the energies of the women at all times directed to the care of those children… and not occupy their attention and energies with politics,” testified Howe on behalf of the American Constitutional League.

War raged in Europe, children died here. “One hundred and fifty thousand in one year! The battles around Verdun– in fact, the whole Compienge district– hardly gave in dead many more than that. That is only one year.”

Helen Keller urged blind women not to marry. Blind herself, she wrote in “Midstream: My Later Life” in 1929: “It would be a severe handicap to any man to saddle upon him the dead weight of my infirmities. I know I have nothing to give a man that would make up for such an unnatural burden.” Keller related her conversation with Alexander Graham Bell: “`I can’t imagine a man wanting to marry me,’ I said. `I should think it would seem like marrying a statue.’”

Publicized as a “psychological drama” and “obsessive love story,” “All I See is You” prompts vague suspicions about James and Gina alike. Someone broke into their apartment. Her dog is gone. Then a letter– with a misspelling of “know”– comes from someone who saw a man tie the dog to a fence: [I] “really believe in my heart that she belongs to me. When I look at her she looks back at me and that is called love. I now that you are missing her but I cannot give her back. It would make me too sad. Sorry.”

Eyes reflecting love is for pets and owners, as well as lovers. Gina teaches guitar to a neighbor girl. They appear on stage for a school contest. They strum and sing: “when I’m happy all I see is you… You can see the love that’s in my heart when you look deep into my eyes.” James leaves the auditorium when he hears the lyric “Say goodbye.”

Little in the film is that legible, except in the end credits where score titles include “I’ve Only Seen Them in Movies,” “I’ve Never Been to a Nightclub” and “Reality and Fantasy.”

Possessive sight and the female gaze are longstanding screen tropes. Yet “All I See is You” visualizes blindness and its cure without imagination. To quote the press notes quoting the director and co-writer: “`When I make a film, my visuals are always guided by the motivation of both the character and the story,’ Forster says. `In this case, I wanted to find a way to tell a story without the limitations of traditional narrative devices, where I could literally embody a painter and create innovative and fluid visuals.’” Cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser believes he sidesteps an obvious binary style: “now it’s Hollywood and now it’s avant-garde.”

The “traditional narrative devices” in this marital thriller are too indirect to my eye. Motives remain in a murk. I prefer the sublime opacity of the couple in “Last Year in Marienbad,” the unapologetically avant-garde narrative by Alan Resnais from 1961.

©2017 Bill Stamets