From War to Wisdom


The real battle begins when they get home.

(2017) Documentary (Vision) Josh Hisle, Scott Blakley, Matt Lorscheider, Kenny Bass, Hans Palmer, Ragtime, Neil Young, Frank Weston, Nick Salcedo, Jared Vrazel, Edward Smith, Justin Oxenrider, Rick Pickeral, Tyler Engel, Travis Elfgren, Josh Rivers, Mike Whiter, Mike Cerre, Walt Michael, Tony Trischka, Mark Llano, Ramez Wahab, Bryan Sellers, Brenda Anna. Directed by Dan Collins and Josh Hisle

 

As a general rule, we tend to honor our combat veterans. We appreciate the service they do for us, putting their lives in harm’s way and triumphing. They represent the best aspects of our society – the sacrifice that we make for the freedoms we enjoy. We literally can’t honor them enough for what they have done and continue to do.

But in truth we don’t truly understand; not really. We can mouth platitudes as I have just done but unless you’ve served in a combat situation, there’s simply no way for us to really empathize for what they’ve been through. We haven’t taken fire, seen our buddies shredded by shrapnel, watch our mentor take a gunshot through the head, felt a bullet whizzing by that missed us by a hair’s breadth and slammed into the face of the guy behind us. We haven’t taken bullets for our brothers nor have we watched our brothers take one for us. We don’t know.

For that reason, we make war with impunity and send our kids out as kids but see them come home as warriors. Once they get home, we pat them on the back, tell them well done and expect them to get on with their lives as if nothing has happened. I’m not sure where that mindset came from but the fact of the matter is that nobody who goes to war comes home unchanged. It’s not possible. That change often can be disturbing; it is common for returning veterans to have severe insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nightmares (and occasional hallucinations), chemical and alcohol dependency and difficulty fitting back in to society. The incidence of homelessness among vets is staggering as is the divorce rate. Even more disturbing is the high suicide rate among veterans.

This documentary focuses on the Marine Corps Fox 2/5 company, one of the most decorated in the Corps. They have an illustrious history and those in it wish to pass on their honorable record to the newest members of the company. Josh Hisle was one of those in Fox 2/5 and he is essentially the main focus, although not the only one. We see them through two tours of combat; the first being the invasion of Iraq in 2003 followed by the Ramadi campaign in 2005. In the first they are viewed by the locals as liberators; in the second they are viewed as invaders.

The combat footage is at times harrowing and we get a real sense of how men react to combat; some of them have big smiles on their faces as combat can be exhilarating; others scream war cries and we are reminded that combat can bring out the savage within us. In both cases we get a sense of the emotional toll of war, more than any other documentary has brought us close to that I can remember.

More poignant than that though are the stories of the warriors returning home; Those who spend sleepless nights in their refuge; Hisle talks about being unable to sleep until he’s sure everyone in his apartment complex is asleep. He sits on his front porch drinking and with his head decidedly not in a good place. However, Hisle is one of the lucky ones; he has a creative outlet in songwriting that helps him to work out some of his frustrations.

And his music is really, really good; good enough to attract the attention of legendary rocker Neil Young who invites the young vet to appear in onstage with him and his group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as well as in his documentary CSNY: Deja Vu. Walt Michael, one of the founders of Common Grounds on the Hill, a group dedicated to highlighting the things that are common to all of us regardless of culture, heard some of Josh’s music and wanted him to attend one of their festivals as a music teacher. Josh was so impressed and was so moved that he convinced Walt to create a Veteran’s initiative, securing funding to get veterans in need of healing to a Common Grounds festival. Josh is convinced that Common Grounds has helped right his life and he has become a passionate advocate of it. This will be the fifth year that the Veteran’s initiative will be in effect.

In fact, several veterans have committed to creating positive changes for their fellow veterans. Matt Lorscheider, who served with Josh in the 2/5, is working with New Directions, a charitable foundation that takes homeless veterans off the streets, gives them vocational training, substance abuse counseling and helps them secure affordable permanent housing. Kenny Bass who was disabled during his tour of Iraq was told by his Veterans Administration doctor that he needed a service dog – but that is something not covered by his benefits. Kenny, on disability and a fixed income, basically had to save every penny to afford the $25,000 needed to purchase a service dog who has helped the quality of life for the veteran immensely. He and his war buddy Josh Rivers decided to turn his difficulty into a positive and founded their own charitable foundation Battle Buddies which helps veterans in need of service dogs be able to purchase one.

This isn’t a political film, although there is a decidedly anti-war skew here among the veterans but one can hardly blame them for that – nobody would want anybody else to go through what they have gone through. Hisle was blunt about his criticisms about certain decisions made during the war; ‘We were trained killers. You don’t send killers to keep the peace. It doesn’t work.” He has a point.

The one small complaint I might have had about the film is that they could have edited it down a bit more; the combat sequences while harrowing do get repetitive and I’m not 100% certain that we needed all of them in the film as the running time is a bit long for this kind of film. Less is more, generally although I would bow to the wisdom of Hisle and the other veterans behind the making of this film as to how much war we civilians need to see.

To a man none of the vets regret their service and would go back in a heartbeat – but only for the sake of those they served with, not for the reasons they were sent there in the first place. This is truly an inspiring documentary that shows you that these Marines are truly leaders of men. They have the will and the training to do tremendous things in the name of war. They also have the drive and the leadership to do amazing things in the name of peace. Our veterans are a resource this nation is truly squandering at present and all of us, the citizens of this country, are partly to blame. We have dropped the ball for those who have sacrificed so much and we need to give our veterans more than platitudes. By all means, do see this movie and be inspired but let that inspiration be more than just lip service; donate to these excellent causes that are helping veterans every day heal and resume their lives. That’s a way of showing your gratitude that truly matters.

REASONS TO GO: It’s truly inspiring to see veterans rising up to help one another – and truly depressing that our own government is not. The exhilaration and savagery of combat is depicted graphically. Hisle’s music is actually really good. In many ways the post-homecoming stories are more poignant.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie could have used a bit more editing
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and scenes of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the footage from the Iraqi conflict was taken by the embedded press with USMC Fox 2/5.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Rings

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Iron Man 3


Robert Downey Jr. mans the Iron Man customer service phone line.

Robert Downey Jr. mans the Iron Man customer service phone line.

(2013) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Wang Xuequi, Paul Bettany (voice), William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Dale Dickey, Shaun Toub, Bill Maher, Joan Rivers, Sarah Burkhardt. Directed by Shane Black

When you’re an iron man, the question is important – is it the suit that makes you, or do you make the suit? That’s the question that Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man is forced to confront in the third installment of the Marvel Superhero film series.

We begin with a prologue in Switzerland back in the ’90s when Tony Stark was just Tony Stark, the boy wonder engineer who was one of the most brilliant weapons designers on this ol’ planet Earth. He seduces one scientist – Maya Hansen (Hall) – and blows off another, Aldrich Killian (Pearce). These acts will have, as Tony narrates in voice over (which only appears at the beginning and end of the movie) a profound consequence on what is about to happen.

These days, Tony Stark is a mess. He has come back from New York after the alien invasion of The Avengers with nothing less than Post Traumatic Stress Disease. He can’t sleep, spending nights in his workshop building all sorts of new sets of armor (he’s up to his 42nd iteration) and driven into panic attacks when his experiences in New York are discussed – or even when the mere name of the city is mentioned.

Pepper Potts (Paltrow) has moved in and their relationship has become one of the few touchstones of Tony’s chaotic life but even she is frustrated, feeling like he’s slipping away from her. To make matters worse, there’s a terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin (Kingsley) who is setting off bombs all over the world, although they can’t find any bomb fragments to figure out what kind of devices he’s using that set off temperatures of over 3000 degrees.

To make matters worse, Aldrich has shown back up, the head of a think tank called AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) that has made him a wealthy man. No longer the long-haired nebbish geek, he’s confident and good-looking, capturing Pepper’s attention and Stark Head of Security Happy Hogan’s (Favreau) ire. However, Happy is caught up in one of the Mandarin’s explosions at Graumann’s Chinese Theater and is gravely injured.

Now it’s on. Tony goes on TV essentially daring the Mandarin to come get him – and even gives him his address. The Mandarin obliges him, taking out Stark’s Malibu in him just as Dr. Hansen comes to warn him to get out. He manages to save Pepper and Dr. Hansen but is trapped in the rubble which falls into the sea. He is presumed dead.

Of course he’s not; his armor, with a flight plan preset by Jarvis (Law), Tony’s computerized butler/assistant, takes him to Tennessee. He meets a young boy (Simpkins) who idolizes him, alternately helping him get back together even though he has nothing, and setting off new panic attacks. Tony really does need to get together; the Mandarin has plans not only for taking out the President (Sadler) but for perpetuating eternal terrorism and counter-response. Tony is far away from his armor and his friends in the Avengers. He will have to take on the Mandarin with just his intellect and his ingenuity. Will it be enough?

This is the first Iron Man movie not directed by Jon Favreau who still appears as an actor however, which he likened to being a grandfather who gets to play with the baby without having to change its diapers. Newcomer Shane Black had previously worked with Downey on the critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang as well as having written the Lethal Weapon series. Having already scored big numbers in international box office before even opening in the United States, this movie is poised to become this year’s box office champion and quite possibly the highest grossing film of the Iron Man series.

There’s good reason for it. While the tone has changed somewhat, the movie still retains much of what has made the series so successful – the dynamic special effects, the clever gadgets, Tony Stark’s irreverent attitude and the epic sweep. It also puts a focus squarely on Tony Stark which Favreau also did – and that’s a wise thing. When you have an actor the caliber of Downey, you’re crazy not to take full advantage of him – and Black ain’t crazy.

Stark is one of the most complex, layered characters in all of comics and that has translated to the film version. He’s arrogant, sure – but there’s a vulnerability to him here that is so much more evident than in the first two films. He is battling insecurity – when you encounter a living God and a living legend, it’s easy to develop an inferiority complex. He is terrified of losing the one relationship that matters to him, the only one that has since his father passed. Deep down, Tony is a generous, heroic guy – but he doesn’t have all the social niceties developed. Downey brings all of these aspects to life and integrates them nicely. Tony Stark is as fully realized a character as we’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.

His antagonists are not nearly as well-realized which is often a problem in superhero movies, particularly those that have become franchises. Kingsley has great fun with the Mandarin, giving him a bizarre accent that accents certain syllables (i.e. “teach-urrrrrrr”) that make him sound like a menacing idiot. This is explained late in the movie to my satisfaction however – but it still is a bit off-putting at first. Pearce is an underrated actor who is as versatile as they come. Some critics have huffed that they don’t understand how a snub in an elevator can turn a nerdy scientist type into a psychotic megalomaniac but they must have fallen asleep during the movie as Killian has a soliloquy which partially explains his change – and one gets the sense that his marble bag wasn’t quite full to begin with.

Paltrow hasn’t really gotten to run with the Pepper Potts character much – and she doesn’t get to here although she does have a couple of good scenes, and she does get to don the armor – well, Tony has the armor cover her to protect her as their home is buffeted by rockets and machine gun fire from attack helicopters. Still, the character is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and she has a mind and a will of her own. She makes a formidable girlfriend for Tony, although that aspect is still yet to be explored fully. Then again, the movie is about the superhero, otherwise it would have been called Pepper Potts 3.

Cheadle and Favreau don’t get much screen time either, although both make the most of what they get. As I mentioned earlier, this is very much a Tony Stark movie even more in a lot of respects than Iron Man, although there are oodles of different armors which all come to play in the climactic battle (the website, which you can reach by clicking on the picture above, has details about some of them). For fans of the comic book, some of the story line borrows from the Extremis storyline although there are some significant changes.

The movie is the longest of the trilogy and might have benefitted from a bit of judicial trimming in the middle third. The final battle, which consists mostly of Tony’s suits flying about battling super soldiers infected with Extremis who are super strong and can shoot fiery breath from their mouths is spectacular but similarly overlong.

The reason to go see this is not just the eye candy however, although there is plenty of that. It’s Downey and a pretty dang well-written script. While I personally think the first Iron Man was better than this on a number of different levels, this one is a slight improvement on Iron Man 2 and while there isn’t a fourth film on the immediate horizon (word comes that Disney is in negotiation with Downey to extend his contract which expired after this film – if not just for future Avengers movies) the credits clearly state that Tony Stark will return. I for one look forward to it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Explores whether the hero is the suit or in the suit.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little too long; could have used a bit of editing.

FAMILY VALUES:  Superhero violence and some sexually suggestive content. Fine for all but the very youngest comic book fans in your household.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dragon tattoos on Aldrich Killian’s chest are actually drawings of Fin Fang Foom, an Iron Man villain from the comic books.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; the movie is getting solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 2

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Sightseers

Brothers at War


Brothers at War

The Rademacher Family

(Goldwyn) Jake Rademacher, Isaac Rademacher, Jenny Rademacher, Claus Rademacher, Robert Smallwood, Edward Allier. Directed by Jake Rademacher

One of the defining events of the first part of this century is the Iraq War. The effect of it on our national psyche, our economy and the way America is perceived in the world has been examined in many different documentaries, but few have chosen to directly examine its effect on a single family.

Jake Rademacher is an actor and filmmaker who at one time wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and his brothers and join the military. While he was unable to fulfill that dream, he undertook a lifestyle very much different than that of the rest of his family. Like them, when his brothers Joe and Isaac were deployed to Iraq, he worried about them. When they returned, he sensed a gulf growing between them.

Jake began to suspect that he could not possibly understand his brothers because he hadn’t walked in their shoes. The only way he could do that was to accompany them back on their next tour of duty, and he did just that. The Pentagon co-operated fully and the result here is a documentary that captures the points of view of individual soldiers, and of those they leave waiting and worrying back home.

Yes, there are some scenes of combat, but mostly you get a sense of what makes up the average soldier’s life; boredom and loneliness followed by brief flurries of adrenalin rush. Mostly the soldiers here joke around, reminisce and find ways to pass the time, whether it is in arguing the relative merits of hotties from the O.C. to listening to iPods.

Rademacher talks to soldiers who have returned home from tour and feeling the surrealness of overhearing shoppers in a local grocery store complain about their phone bills, whereas weeks and sometimes days before they were risking their lives in combat. There is some poignancy in listening to Jenny Rademacher (wife of Isaac) who was herself a West Point graduate who had left the military after having their child, feeling the pain of her husband who was away during his daughter’s birth and missing so much of her childhood.

At times, this feels more like a chronicle of Jake’s personal journey to win the approval of his father and brothers rather than a real attempt to understand what they’re going through. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jake agreed with me on that score but nonetheless the filmmaker’s ego is occasionally intrusive, which does not serve the film – or its audience – well.

Some have criticized this movie for not having a political point of view, either pro or con. Quite frankly, that’s not what I think Jake had in mind when he made this film, to express his opinion of the war. I think in fact the movie is stronger for staying away from that particular debate.

In fact, this isn’t really a war documentary, although that is the setting for the film. What I think it is really is a slice of life albeit one that is life in the military. On that level, the movie does justice to those who do serve and to those who await their safe return home. Whether or not you believe that we should have been there, the fact is that we were there and the effect that being there had on families and the men who served deserves to be chronicled.

WHY RENT THIS: A slice-of-life documentary disguised as a documentary on the war.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times you get a sense this is more about Jake Rademacher’s attempt to attract attention from his family rather than to genuinely understand his brothers.

FAMILY VALUES: These are real soldiers in really stressful conditions; their language is accordingly salty. In all honesty, I think most teens should be able to handle it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Gary Sinese, a friend of Jake Rademacher, was one of the producers for the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An update on the status of the Rademacher brothers is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $153,000 on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money or broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Snakes on a Plane