The Wall (2017)


Everything is more intense when you’re under fire.

(2017) War Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli. Directed by Doug Liman

 

In the desert, there is not much beyond scorching sun, deep blue sky and wind-whipped sand. It is dusty, hot and dry. Humans can survive there but far from comfortably. It is a terrible place to have a war.

And yet we’ve spent the last 16 years and counting in the desert at war. In this movie, it is 2007 and the war in Iran is “winding down” as the opening credits inform us. Remembering that this is the era of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” faux pas of George W. Bush, the movie begins on a wry, humorous note. We see that there are two Marines – Shane Matthews (Cena), a sniper and “Eyes” Isaac (Taylor-Johnson), his spotter – observing a pipeline construction site. Their banter is the kind between brothers or bar buddies; occasionally vulgar, snarky for certain but affectionate nonetheless.

All the men working on the pipeline are dead. The spotter thinks they are all head shots; the sniper is not so sure. If the former is right, then there is a highly skilled sniper in the neighborhood. If the latter is correct, then it was likely an insurgent patrol that surprised the construction workers and is likely long gone. The two men have been sitting in the hot son in full camouflage for 22 hours. Matthews has about had enough. There has been no movement. Nobody is there.

He heads down to the construction site to make sure and to request that the two be picked up and returned to base. There is a crack-thump and down goes the Marine. His buddy runs out to help him and crack-thump he’s hit as well. Isaac is forced to take shelter behind a crumbling wall, one which is barely standing on its own and threatens to come down on top of him if the wind gets too high.

He is forced to take the bullet out of his own leg in a squirm-inducing moment and then needs to look to the survival of himself and his buddy who appears to be unconscious or dead. The outlook is grim; the radio antenna has been damaged so all he can pick up are people who are close by; his canteen has also been shot and the water drained out. The dehydration combined with his serious wound is likely to kill him before base camp comes looking for them.

At first things take a turn for the better; Isaac gets in contact with a patrol team who must be close by but when they keep asking for his exact position, he begins to get suspicious, suspicions which are confirmed when the man on the radio tells him that he is the sniper who has shot him. The two strike up a conversation; it turns out that the sniper is the legendary Juba, who has 75 confirmed American kills to his credit. He seems eager to get to know Isaac who wants nothing more than to figure out where Juba is so that he can shoot him.

It becomes a game of cat and mouse with Juba threatening to shoot off the face of Matthews if Isaac doesn’t answer the questions that Juba poses, the most important being “Why are you still here?” That’s a question Americans have been asking as well.

Liman has constructed a taut three-person movie that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats from minute one. It’s a short but sweet movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome and although there is a bit of a lull in the middle, mostly keeps the tension at a high level throughout. The movie is shot so well you can almost feel the sand getting in your eyes.

There is an authentic feel to the film from a military standpoint. I’m not ex-military myself but the characters act as I would think well-trained Marines would; they are imperfect and have their moments when they let their guard down but nonetheless they (particularly Taylor-Johnson) act with a sense that the training has kicked in as the situation is assessed, immediate needs seen to and a plan to get out of a bad situation put together. We see all of this from the comfort of our theater seats (or our living room sofa as the case may be) and likely feel quite grateful that it is not us cringing beneath that poorly constructed wall.

Cena spends most of the movie lying face down in the dirt but this is maybe his best performance of his fairly brief acting career. The WWE superstar has always impressed me with his screen presence but over time he has developed some real acting skills. I’m not sure he’s at the level of a Dwayne Johnson yet but as wrestlers turned thespians go, he certainly has the tools to construct a pretty satisfying career and maybe more down the line.

Taylor-Johnson has been in my opinion on the fringe of breaking it big with some fairly good performances in fairly good movies, but nothing has really brought him to the A-list quite yet. Much of the film rests on his shoulders as he is interacting with a voice on his radio more than with a live actor as Cena is mostly unconscious in the film. That takes a lot of chops and fortunately Taylor-Johnson has them. We shall see if this finally puts him over the top and gets him that role that will elevate him into the next level.

This is a movie in which sound plays an unusually important part and Liman’s sound team comes through in spades. From the sound of the wind whipping the sand around, the crack-thump of the gunshots and the metallic bangs of the construction site, the sounds make the movie. We really don’t have a lot to look at other than endless vistas of sand and the half-finished construction site. We need the additional stimulation and we get it.

Amazon Studios helped to produce this, likely with a goal of getting their Prime users to watch this at home, but this is one of those rare movies that I think despite having an intimate setting should be seen in a theater where the outstanding sound work and impressive visuals will work best. This hasn’t gotten a ton of buzz amongst indie film fans but it deserves some. This is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out and at least here in Orlando is playing in enough theaters that there’s no excuse not to find it.

REASONS TO GO: The expected route is not taken. Taylor-Johnson and Cena; who knew? There is a lot of authenticity to this film.
REASONS TO STAY: The middle third is a little bit slow. Juba as a disembodied voice lacks menace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of salty language and a fair amount of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicholas Irving, the Army Rangers sniper who served as technical adviser for the film, was nicknamed “The Reaper” during his tour of duty.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Phone Booth
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Last Shaman

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk


War and football: two American pastimes.

War and football: two American pastimes.

(2016) Drama (Tri-Star) Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Arturo Castro, Mason Lee, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Beau Knapp, Tim Blake Nelson, Deidre Lovejoy, Bruce McKinnon, Ben Platt, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Barney Harris, Christopher Cook, Laura Wheale, Richard Allen Daniel, Makenzie Leigh, Dana Barrett. Directed by Ang Lee

 

It is often easy in war to identify a hero. The crucible of battle can bring out the highest of human qualities as well as the lowest. But what happens to heroes after their moment?

Billy Lynn (Alwyn), a 19-year-old Texan from a small town, is finding out. During a skirmish with his Bravo company in Iraq, he sees his Sgt. Shroom (Diesel) go down after being hit. Without thinking, he goes out to defend his fallen comrade who has been a bit of a mentor to the young boy, taking on an Iraqi insurgent in hand-to-hand combat. The episode is captured on video and goes viral.

The Bravo company is sent home on a publicity tour, culminating in a Thanksgiving Day appearance at a halftime show at the Dallas stadium for their pro football team, whose smarmy owner Norm Oglesby (Martin) professes great admiration for the Bravos while at the same time trying to figure out a way he can exploit their fame for his own purposes. The company is presided over by Sgt. David Dime (Hedlund) who is a bit more worldly and protective of his boys, while a Hollywood agent (Tucker) tries to get the Bravos a movie deal for the rights to their story.

Set during the day of the big halftime show, Lee’s film captures the bonds of brotherhood between the soldiers who are increasingly disconnected with the well-meaning but clueless civilians who “support the troops” but don’t have any idea what that entails. Alwyn, a British actor, pulls off the American accent without a flaw and captures Billy’s jarring juxtaposition between worldly warrior and naïve 19-year-old. It’s a scintillating performance that hopefully will be the first of many for a young actor with a whole lot of upside.

His conscience is his sister Kathryn (Stewart) whose liberal anti-war aphorisms meet with disapproval in the Lynn family who are solidly behind the war. Perhaps the face of the attitude towards his heroism comes from cheerleader Faison (Leigh) who is more interested in her own image of him as a Christian soldier than in the real Billy Lynn.

Based on a book by Ben Fountain, the movie feels much of the time that it is trying to take on too many ideas in a superficial manner without settling on anything concrete. The overall impression is of a film without a message although it desperately is trying to get something across. I’m a big Ang Lee fan but this isn’t going to go down as one of his best.

Much has been made of the technical aspect of the movie; it was filmed at a higher frame rate – about five times faster – than standard movies. Unfortunately, few theaters are equipped to show the movie this way, although I understand that the effect was impressive and completely immersive. Perhaps someday we’ll get to see it the way it was intended but the 2D was satisfactory in terms of the images.

Much like this review, the film is scattershot. There’s a cohesive whole to be had here but it eludes the filmmaker; just when you think the movie is about to gel, it goes off on another tangent or several of them. This is the most unfocused I’ve seen Lee as a filmmaker in his entire career. This is one of the year’s biggest disappointments.

REASONS TO GO: Some strong performances and content make this worthwhile.
REASONS TO STAY: A feeling that the film is all over the place makes it not.
FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of salty language, some scenes of war violence, some sexual content and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Mason Lee, who plays Foo, is Ang Lee’s son.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Origin

Anthropoid


Nobody likes a bomb.

Nobody likes a bomb.

(2016) Historical Drama (Bleecker Street) Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones, Sean Mahon, Bill Milner, Jan Hájek, Pavel Reznicek, Alena Mihulová, Harry Lloyd, Detlef Bothe, Roman Zach, Mish Boyko, Sam Keeley, Ondrej Maly, Marcin Corocinski, Karel Hermánek Jr., Václav Neuzil, Jiri Simek, Andrej Polak, Anna Gerislová. Directed by Sean Ellis

 

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but there are some true stories that are not strange at all, but point out the best that humanity can be – and the worst. Not all of those sorts of stories stay with us for long and indeed this one remains only relatively well-known in Eastern Europe, but it is a story worth the telling.

After the Berlin Accords gave what was then known as Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany to be used as fuel for the war machine to come, Prague became an occupied city and the entire region was ruled with an iron fist. Holding that fist was Reinhard Heydrich (Bothe), one of the authors of Hitler’s Final Solution and who would become known as The Butcher of Prague.

The Czech government in exile decided to make a statement and sent a team of paratroopers into the countryside outside Prague who had the mission of assassinating Heydrich. Leading the team was Josef Gabcik (Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Dornan), two Czech soldiers. Things went bad from the beginning; Kubis injured his foot while landing and the two resistance fighters who were sent to meet them turned out to be Nazi collaborators. The two soldiers barely escaped with their lives.

They finally found legitimate resistance members in Prague, but the situation there was very chaotic. There was little or no information to be hand; the city was under severe restrictions and people were being rounded up and imprisoned with impunity. There were infiltrators everywhere and knowing whom to trust was no easy task. “Uncle” Hajsky (Jones) was trying to make some sort of organization through all this but most of his men had been arrested. He put up the two paratroopers in the Moravec home whose mother (Mihulová) was a resistance member and their son Ata (Milner) loyal to the cause.

To keep suspicions from being aroused over the new arrivals, girlfriends were supplied; Marie (Le Bon) for Josef and Lenka (Gerislová) for Jan. The deception turned out to be a lot more accurate as the two couples began to actually fall for each other. Wartime can be a great accelerator of romance.

In the repressive atmosphere of Prague, however, getting their mission completed would be no easy task and with little contact with their government and almost no intelligence to go on, the two men had their work cut out for them. What would happen would become one of the greatest instances of heroism to come out of the War and is a source of national pride to the Czechs even to this day.

It is not an easy thing to write a review or a movie that is about actual history; while one doesn’t want to supply spoilers for those who may not be aware of how the story unfolded, at the same time it is difficult to write about the film without giving at least some plot points away. Suffice to say that Ellis and company have given us a movie whose historical accuracy is better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen; that is a double-edged sword however.

The movie does drag in places, particularly in the first half. Once the assassination is attempted, the movie is turbo charged and Ellis delivers some really fine suspense sequences and one of the best shoot-outs since the climax of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Murphy and Dornan are both fine actors and they’re given some exceptional material to work with. Both men are imperfect, neither are superheroes and both have the kinds of doubts and frailties that real heroes must overcome to do extraordinary things.

Those who are aware of the history behind the celluloid are going to view this a lot differently than those who are unfamiliar with the story; even the latter group however may find the sense of things spiraling towards a final conclusion somewhat overwhelming. We all know that the Titanic is going to sink even before we view the movie; how it gets there and who survives is what makes that movie a classic.

As a movie, Anthropoid makes an excellent history lesson. That doesn’t always translate to entertainment however, unless you are entertained by history and fortunately for me, I am. I found the film fascinating and I was moved enough to research the real Operation Anthropoid which is where I discovered that the filmmakers stuck to the facts of the incident quite closely which is something to be admired, although at times they seem to be willing to sacrifice entertainment for accuracy. I think that both could have coexisted better as the last half of the movie clearly shows; had the first half been able to capture the tension of the second this would have been a clear front runner to be one of the best movies of the year. Unfortunately, it is slow in getting underway so this will have to remain a solid, historically accurate war film that is flawed but nevertheless worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Historically accurate and full of gut-wrenching suspense. The performances are strong throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The sense of impending doom is oppressive at times. Slow-moving in the first half of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence here as well as some fairly disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which Ata Moravec is tortured was filmed in the same place where it actually happened.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Operation: Daybreak
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Think Twice

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials


Maze Runner The Scorch Trials

You’ve got to learn how to crawl before you learn how to run mazes.

(2015) Young Adult Sci-Fi (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Terry Dale Parks, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, J. Nathan Simmons, Alan Tudyk, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by Wes Ball

It seems that whenever you’re in the middle segment of a cinematic trilogy, there’s always a bit of a letdown; there’s usually more exposition that action and it lacks the kind of energy that marks the first installment, nor the emotional punch of the third. Would that happen to this sequel to the successful young adult science fiction adaptation The Maze Runner?

Following the conclusion of that film, the survivors of the Glade are brought into an underground facility, a way station before being taken to their final destination. No, that doesn’t sound sinister at all, right? In any case, Thomas (O’Brien) hooks up with Aris (Lofland), a survivor of a different Maze (there are apparently many of them) and discovers the truth about the facility – it is wholly owned by WCKD (pronounced “wicked,” possibly the most unsubtle acronym ever), the corporate blackhearts who created the Mazes and they’re conducting medical experiments on the kids who have made it this far.

Naturally, this doesn’t appeal much to Thomas and he takes the rest of his crew – Teresa (Scodelario), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Lee), Frypan (Darden) and Winston (Flores) out of the frying pan and into the Scorch. The Scorch is the world above ground, an arid desert with unpredictable weather patterns, terrifying storms and creatures that roam the wasteland by night. A trip to the local mall leads to the discovery that they are victims of the Flare, a virus that turns the victims homicidal and utterly insane.

Thomas and the gang are looking for The Right Arm, an underground resistance group who may be able to shelter them from WCKD who clearly want them back badly; the chief scientist for WCKD, Dr. Ava Paige (Clarkson) has sent her assassin Janson (Gillen) to go fetch Thomas and his tank engine…er, crew.

After being captured by Jorge (Esposito) and his daughter Brenda (Salazar), they get away from WCKD and head out to find Marques, the man who might be able to find the Right Arm. Once again, it’s back into the fire as a happening party turns into a 90s rave and turns into a real bad trip. Once the kids find the Right Arm, however, they are going to find out that there are worse beasts in the wasteland than madmen, and that courage may not be enough to get them all through. Making it out alive may not be in the cards for all of them, but there may be worse things ahead for all of them.

No need to keep you in suspense; this isn’t as good as the first movie. That movie had a kinetic energy that is severely lacking here. Not that there aren’t some superior action scenes; there are, but while Maze Runner felt like a sprint, this is more of a distance run. Most of the same folks that didn’t get snuffed in the first film are back with a passel of new characters as well as the bulk of the same talent behind the camera. The problem with middle films in trilogies is that they are often connectors, linking point A and point B. The middle of a story is never as interesting as the beginning or the end.

O’Brien is a little bit more animated here but the same problem that plagued the first movie plagues this one; Thomas isn’t a very interesting lead character. They try to make him that way with references to his unremembered past but the real issue is that Thomas acts like every teen hero in every cinematic adaptation of a young adult novel ever, and it really is kind of tiresome. There’s nothing here to distinguish it from its competition and even given that the audience this is playing too is a lot less discriminating, they aren’t dummies; they know lazy writing when they see it.

Most of the rest of the cast is adequate to decent; the most promising performer in the first film doesn’t appear here. It’s just that they’re not given a lot to work with; the characters are mostly bland, recycled from other stories and films. None of them really grab your attention much. That’s the problem with having characters who can’t remember their past; there isn’t a lot for the audience to hold onto other than their actions and when you’re talking about actions that are pretty much standard young adult fantasy fare that’s only worse. Even the zombie-like Flare victims don’t measure up to the monsters of The Walking Dead and the special effects here are pretty much standard.

This is bargain basement sci-fi that doesn’t really generate enough enthusiasm in me to really give it much of a recommendation which is a shame because I thought the first film had some potential. Maybe we’ll have to wait until the final installation in the trilogy to see that potential fulfilled but at this point I’m not especially waiting on the edge of my seat for February 17, 2017 to come around – the date that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is set to wrap up the series. Sad to say, I’d be just fine with them wrapping it up here unless they can do a whole lot better next time.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly well-done action sequences. Attractive leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Really been there-done that. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence, some thematic elements, a scene of substance use and some mild language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio greenlit the sequel two weeks before the first film opened after early reviews and audience scores proved to be overwhelmingly positive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Intern

Monsters: Dark Continent


Doing the monster mash.

Doing the monster mash.

(2015) Action Horror (Radius) Johnny Harris, Sam Keeley, Joe Dempsie, Kyle Soller, Nicholas Pinnock, Parker Sawyers, Philip Arditti, Sofia Boutella, Michaela Coel, Hassan Sha’er, Uriel Emill Pollack, Jessie Nagy, Wael Baghdadi, Jacqueline Hicks, Amanda Kaspar, Donna-Marie Foster, Orlando Ebanks, Tonya Moss-Roberts, Billy Roberts, Lulu Dahl. Directed by Tom Green

It’s often hard to tell the monsters from the non-monsters. Sure, there may be some dead giveaways – fangs and claws dripping blood, for example but often the greatest monsters hide in the skins that blend in with everyone else.

Those who remember the predecessor to this film will know that a NASA probe had crash-landed in Northern Mexico, releasing alien spores that grew into life forms large and small (mostly large). The whole portion of the country had been cordoned off by both governments, designated an infected zone and few beyond the military were allowed to enter.

Ten years after, it’s discovered that a fragment of the probe had also landed in the Middle East and that part of the country had been infected as well. The United States military were conducting bombing raids on the gigantic creatures. The collateral damage of homes destroyed, lives lost and lives altered had infuriated the local populace who want the Americans to go away post-haste. Insurgent groups were now proving to be as deadly to American troops as the monsters themselves.

Four guys from Detroit who’d grown up together – Michael Parkes (Keeley), Frankie Maguire (Dempsie), Karl Inkelaar (Soller) and Shaun Williams (Sawyers) – and are marching off to war together. One last night of drug-fueled debauchery with strippers and they’re in-country. Heading their unit is Sgt. Noah Frater (Harris), a tough as nails sort who has no compunction shooting an insurgent leader from hiding while in disguise or leading his team in full uniform.

They have a mission to head into the boondocks to find an American squad who is missing. Frater and his right hand man Forrest (Pinnock) don’t have much faith that these still wet-behind-the-ears recruits will be of much use but they will have to make due. Of course, things go sideways and the group is under attack from insurgents who are as well-armed as they are, and who have a good deal of military savvy too. Soon the mission is put aside for survival as Parkes watches his friends die, and begins to suspect that Frater may not be altogether stable.

The first movie was something of a romance road movie hybrid with the monsters thrown in for good measure. Here, this is like a mash-up of Full Metal Jacket, American Sniper and Cloverfield.

The first film’s director Gareth Edwards rode the critical success of it straight into the recent reboot of Godzilla and so he was unavailable for the most part for this film, although he does carry a producer credit; his input was fairly limited. His absence is notable; the movie here has some elements of his style but it’s certainly completely different in tone. I have to say that in many ways this doesn’t measure up to the first film very well.

The monsters are more numerous in the sequel, with the gigantic skyscraper behemoths, herds of tentacle-covered gazelles (why do alien life forms always have tentacles in the movies?) and tiny little things that fit in a jewel box. The creature effects here are outstanding and the movie is better when the monsters are around.

The humans don’t fare as well. The soldiers are chest-thumping, gung ho hoo-rah sorts that have populated American films depicting the military to the point where you would wish for a behemoth to come and crush the lot of them just to get the stink of testosterone out of the air. I get it, this is a band of brothers. Now get on with the movie. This tendency is particularly ironic as the actors are all British and this is a British film.

There are some beautiful images here; the monsters themselves can be majestic and have a curious dignity; when mating, they create a light show that is absolutely thrilling. The Jordanian desert (where this was filmed) is stark and beautiful in its desolation. For the soldiers it must have seemed an alien landscape indeed, particularly for those used to the urban decay of the Motor City.

However, the beauty is marred by occasional confusion, at least on my part. The soldiers are kind of interchangeable and one can mix one up with another, other than the officers and of course Parkes. The plot occasionally meanders into “doesn’t-make-sense” territory as the soldiers go deeper into the desert, not unlike Benjamin Willard getting deeper into the jungle in Apocalypse Now. Maybe this is meant to be something of a tip of the hat to that film.

The point here is that the monsters are not the insurgents and they aren’t the aliens either. The Americans insist on seeing the things that are different from them culturally and biologically as threats and react to them with fear and violence. While Parkes, as the main character in many ways, grows into learning not to fear, Frater certainly doesn’t get it and is determined to complete his mission even if he’s the last survivor to do it.

I appreciate the parallels to our mis-adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq and am willing to take responsibility for my country’s often ill-advised forays into the Middle East. I don’t appreciate our the military bro-hood being emphasized to the point that I kind of got sick of it. I know the military can sometimes be a little too….enthusiastically military shall we say? Those of us who haven’t served likely don’t understand the culture and the intensity of their feelings. Life and death situations will do that to you. However, I can’t help if this is how the world sees us…and how much truth there might be to their viewpoint.

REASONS TO GO: Creature effects are striking. Captures chaos of war nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too gung-ho American in places. Detroit prologue a bit too long. Too many interchangeable characters.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic war violence, disturbing images, plenty of salty language, nudity and sexual content, drug use and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scoot McNairy, the lead actor in the original Monsters doesn’t appear in this movie but he is an executive producer on the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Objective
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring commences!

Home of the Brave (2006)


A sadly far-too-common sight during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

A sadly far-too-common sight during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

(2006) War Drama (MGM) Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, Christina Ricci, Brian Presley, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Chad Michael Murray, Victoria Rowell, Jeff Nordling, Vyto Ruginis, Sam Jones III, James MacDonald, Sandra Nelson, Ginger Ewing, Jack Serino, Brendan Wayne, Mohamed Zinathiah, Richard De Mayo, Kiara Johnson, Joyce M. Cameron. Directed by Irwin Winkler

For three soldiers serving in Iraq, the word has come down; they’re shipping back home in two weeks. When in Hollywood, that’s a sure sign that something Bad is about to happen.

And so it does. Dr. Will Marsh (Jackson), Vanessa Price (Biel), Tommy Yates (Presley) and Jamal Aiken (50 Cent) are part of an Army National Guard humanitarian convoy bringing medical supplies and personnel to a small Iraqi village when they are ambushed by insurgents. The firefight is sudden and brutal, with the soldiers taking on well-armed adversaries. None of them get out without some kind of wound; Vanessa loses her hand in a roadside bomb explosion, Jamal accidentally shoots an unarmed civilian, Tommy takes a minor wound to his leg and as a result is unable to help when his best friend is killed. As for Marsh, he’s supposed to stitch them all together.

Once they recover from their physical wounds, they’re all shipped home and essentially left to fend for themselves. The VA bureaucracy is bewildering for some, while others fail to take advantage of the programs that are available to help them cope. Vanessa is having problems dealing with her mutilation; not only is she having physical problems adjusting to the prosthetic, her emotional issues are threatening to overwhelm her and alienate her from her family. Jamal is angry and frustrated; his former girlfriend Keisha (Ewing) refuses to have anything to do with him and he can’t seem to navigate the paperwork that will help him get the treatment he needs for his injured back. Tommy is aimless and drifting, unable to handle the guilt of failing his friend; on top of that, he finds himself attracted to his dead buddy’s girlfriend (Ricci), but neither of them seem able to help the other cope with their grief.

Dr. Marsh seems to have the most complex issues. His teenage son (Jones) is angry (what teenage son isn’t?) and takes it out on his father, who struggles to understand him. His wife (Rowell) in turn wants to help him with his pain, but can’t find any sort of common ground to begin with, even if he was willing to let her in which he isn’t. Instead, he turns to the bottle to ease his suffering, with predictable results.

The turmoil of soldiers placed into extremely stressful situations returning into a normal life is daunting. Not many go through the process unscathed but which of these returning vets will break and which, if any, will overcome?

Outside of Jackson, Biel and Ricci, few of the cast were really name actors at the time this was made. Jackson is, as always, terrific as the tormented medic while Ricci has only a couple of scenes in which to display her grief, which to her credit doesn’t seem to be a product of Acting Out Grief 101. Most of the rest of the cast is solid, although 50 Cent at times has difficulty enunciating in one of his first screen roles – his third, to be exact. As for the rest of the cast, most resist the urge to denigrate drama into melodrama but some succumb to the temptation.

The battle sequences are pulse-pounding and realistic, although it reminded me a little bit of the ambush sequence in Clear and Present Danger. Winkler is a veteran director and does a solid job of moving the story along. While the script is extremely flawed in terms of its characterization of the emotional state of the majority of our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the elements that work do so extremely well.

I’ll pretty much see Samuel L. Jackson in just about anything. Yeah, he can be over-the-top but he’s never boring. Winkler manages to make each soldier’s story gripping and you wind up caring about the characters and being interested in their individual journeys but the movie doesn’t really add anything to the overall conversation. In a lot of ways, the topic is and has been better explored in documentaries about the subject. I was disappointed that the script portrayed all of the returning veterans as psychotic, which is not true of the majority of returning war veterans. Yes, there are plenty of Iraq War vets who have problems returning to normal life, but there are plenty who are able to adjust without falling apart.  I’m not saying that they all come through unscathed and adjust easily to civilian life, but most don’t have the extreme reactions these vets did. I would have hoped for more realistic portrayals of vets adjusting to their return to normal life. In short, this is no Best Days of Our Lives.

While this seems to be a modern take on The Best Years of Our Lives, there is at least enough about it that give it some resonance. However, the 1946 movie about returning WWII vets is still the best movie ever produced on the subject and let’s face it, Jessica Biel is no Harold Russell. There is some resonance here however, particularly given the recent VA scandal and the difficulties veterans are encountering getting the assistance they need. Overall I have to say that I found myself interested in the lives of these soldiers and if you get me to that point, that’s half the battle.

WHY RENT THIS: Jackson is always interesting. Opening ambush sequence very powerful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Heavy-handed. Doesn’t really cover any new ground.
FAMILY MATTERS: The subject matter is difficult for less mature audience members to latch onto, and the ambush sequence is fairly realistic, particularly when the roadside bomb does its work. The language is salty throughout; definitely not for younger and more sensitive types.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The closing credits song, “Try Not to Remember” performed by Sheryl Crow was nominated for a Golden Globe.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a trivia track on the Blu-Ray edition; the DVD edition has the usual audio commentary and deleted scene.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $499,620 on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Deli Man

Stop-Loss


Channing Tatum tells a disbelieving Abbie Cornish about his years as a stripper.

Channing Tatum tells a disbelieving Abbie Cornish about his years as a stripper.

(2008) Drama (Paramount) Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ciaran Hinds, Timothy Olyphant, Victor Rasuk, Rob Brown, Quay Terry, Josef Sommer, Matthew Scott Wilcox, Connett M. Brewer, Linda Emond, Mamie Gummer, Alex Frost, Chandra Washington, David Kroll, Lee Stringer, J.D. Evermore, Kasey Stevens. Directed by Kimberly Pierce

For those of us who have never been to war, the things are troops that have been to war have been through is absolutely inconceivable (and yes, I do know what the word means). We absolutely have no clue. Coming home and readjusting to life after having been through those horrors has to be hard. The threat of being sent back after having been home – damn near impossible.

Steve Shriver (Tatum), Tommy Burgess (Gordon-Levitt), Rico Rodriguez (Rasuk) and their squad leader, Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Phillippe) survive an ambush in Tikrit during the Iraq war that leaves three of their squad dead, including Tommy’s close friend Preacher Colson (Terry) who died in his arms. Rodriguez was severely injured in the melee protecting Tommy. None of them got out unscathed.

A couple of months later, the tour ended, Shriver, Burgess and King returned home to Brazos, Texas where they were received as the heroes they were. At a ceremony honoring the returning heroes, U.S. Senator Orton Worrell pulls Brandon aside and lets him know that anything he needs, his friends need, any help the Senator can give will be gladly given.

Despite all this, the boys aren’t adjusting well. After the ceremony, they all go out and get drunk. Steve strikes his fiancée Michelle (Cornish) and digs a foxhole in the front yard. When Brandon comes over the check on him, he is unable to get through to Steve and reassure him that they are home. Tommy drives over drunk after his wife (Gummer) has kicked him out.

Brandon suggests they drive up to “the Ranch,” a small cabin in the forest outside of town where they go to hunt, fish and drink. Tommy ends up shooting his wedding gifts after the cards are read. Steve, awakened by the commotion, shoots the cards to put an end to the proceedings.

 

The next day the three report to the local army base, expecting to receive their discharge papers and formally end their tour of duty. Instead, they are ordered back to duty through the military’s controversial “stop-loss” policy which gives the military the right to extend the tour of service without the consent of the soldier. Brandon isn’t ready for this. He refuses to report and is listed as AWOL. With his friends falling apart, Brandon decides to drive to DC to see the Senator to see if there is something he can do about this. Accompanying him is Michelle, who is separated from Steve. Can Brandon take on the Army and get his life back?

Pierce, whose previous film Boys Don’t Cry was one of the most acclaimed movies of the last decade, seems a little bit muddled here. It’s plain that she has a point of view critical of the stop-loss policy but she doesn’t seem to know how to express it well.

She does know how to get the most of her actors and Tatum gives a strong performance, something he hadn’t been known for up until that time when many – including myself – thought him wooden and more of a pretty boy than an actor. He gives Steve depth and foreshadows better performances in the post-Magic Mike era of his career.

Cornish, an Aussie, shows here why she is one of the most exciting young talents in the movies right now. She nails the perfect Texas woman – strong as a longhorn bull but tender and feminine as the proverbial Texas rose. There are reasons you don’t mess with Texas and their women are a big reason why. Cornish makes Michelle represent that in a big way.

There is a good movie in the material but I get the sense that the writers didn’t really know where to go with it. The ending is a big slap in the face to the audience who have followed the plot and committed to it, sadly and keeps this movie from being a flawed classic. Good performances and a thoughtful premise make this worth checking out but sadly, the filmmakers can’t elevate this beyond another movie about the Iraq war that is ignored by the moviegoing public.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performances by Cornish and Tatum. Has a lot of material to think about.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Mishandles a good premise. Ending is just plain awful.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some fairly graphic violence and foul language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script went through 65 drafts, which is a highly unusual number. Most feature films go from anywhere from two or three drafts to a dozen.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette that takes a look at the actors boot camp to get them into a military character mindset.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.2M on a $25M production budget.

SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu,  iTunes

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brothers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Taqwacores