Lone Survivor


Brothers in arms.

Brothers in arms.

(2013) War Drama (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Yousef Azami, Ali Suliman, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig, Rich Ting, Dan Blizerian, Jerry Ferrara, Rick Vargas, Scott Elrod, Gregory Rockwood, Ryan Kay, Patrick Griffin, Josh Berry, Eric Steinig, David Shepard, Justin Tade, Sterling Jones, Jason Riggins. Directed by Peter Berg

When we invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9-11, I’m sure the Russians were chuckling ruefully to themselves…as were perhaps the ghosts of British colonialists, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. This land of unforgiving terrain has been repelling invasions for thousands of years.

But since that’s where the Taliban were and they had some dealings with Al Qaeda, it became a necessity that we go in there and clean house or at least that was the school of thought at the time. That we are still there 14 years later is neither surprising nor a reason to be proud.

In 2005, a group of Navy SEALS were sent into a remote area of Afghanistan to discover whether a high-ranking Taliban leader who had been responsible for the murder of a bunch of marines earlier that year was in fact hiding in a village there. Once they had established he was there, they were to call in the troops and help take him out. The problem was that communications in the area were dicey; secure lines and unsecured satellite phones alike worked only intermittently and the men going in were fully aware of that.

Those men were Michael Murphy (Kitsch) who commanded the mission, Danny Dietz (Hirsch), Matt “Axe” Axelson (Foster) and Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg). Among those supporting them back at base is the young and eager Shane Patton (Ludwig) and their company commander Erik Kristensen (Bana), professionals all.

Things go sideways when a trio of goat herders stumble on them as they observe the village. One of them is carrying a military grade walkie talkie. Given the venomous rage that one of the boys looks at the SEALs with, it seems likely that if these herders aren’t Taliban they are at least informants. This leaves the men with a dilemma – whether to kill the goat herders outright, to tie them up which if they were unable to extricate themselves would certainly lead to them freezing to death in the night, or to let them go and abort the mission which would then having them chased by the much larger force of Taliban fighters than they were led to believe was in the village to begin with.

They choose the latter force, keeping to their rules of engagement even though all four of them knows what it could mean – and what it means is a couple of hundred well-armed hostiles chasing them through unfamiliar terrain and with the communications as iffy as they are, help may not be on the way for a good long time. This band of brothers will have to use every bit of courage and training to get them through this rapidly deteriorating situation, and rely on each other more than they ever have before.

This is based on actual events. Operation Red Wings ended up pretty much the way it is depicted here, and for the most part this is what these men went through although some of it has to be speculation. In any case, the movie basically from the time the SEALs let the goat herders go to the end is a pure adrenaline rush, harrowing in suspense but beautiful in how these men not only depend on each other but genuinely love one another as men who have defended their lives together truly can.

This isn’t a movie you go see especially for the acting, although the performances are pretty solid and nobody really disgraces themselves. The camaraderie is captured nicely and that is really the center of the movie; in the field, you fight for the guy/gal on your left, not for some idea or political point – and they’re fighting for you in the same way.

While I can’t say for sure if this gives audiences a good sense of what it’s like to be in a combat situation having never been in one myself, I can say that the combat sequences are very intense, maybe too much so for those who are sensitive or easily disturbed. I do like that although there are some genuinely nasty customers among the Taliban, not all the Afghans are portrayed as hateful. I certainly found myself wanting to find out more about what pushtanwali meant.

Where the film is less successful is telling us who these men were. We know how hard they fought, how fiercely they protected one another but I would have liked to know more about them. In a sense that  even though we feel what they go through, we are unable to mourn them as effectively because they are yet strangers to us, despite spending two hours with them. If Berg had succeeded in doing that as well, this would have been contending for a Best Picture Oscar, but as it is he has delivered a really good film that I can recommend to pretty much anyone without reservation.

REASONS TO GO: Harrowing and moving. A fitting tribute to the men and women of our armed forces.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense for some. Really doesn’t give us as good a sense of who these men were as I would have liked.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of salty SEAL’s language as well as a ton of war violence and some fairly disturbing and graphic scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the fire fight with the Taliban is depicted in the film as lasting three days, the real life one lasted five. Marcus Luttrell would be awarded the Navy Cross for his valor in the incident.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Hawk Down

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar begins!

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Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring


 

The Lord of the Rings; Fellowship of the Ring

Now there’s an idea for the Kentucky Derby – arm the jockeys with swords.

(2001) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Sean Bean, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Marton Csokas, Andy Serkis, Sarah McLeod, Peter McKenzie, Harry Sinclair, Sala Baker. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

There was much concern when it was announced that the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy was going to be made into movies that it be done right. Anything less than a classic movie would be heartbreaking to the millions of readers who love Tolkein’s work, let alone the smaller but very vocal crowd of the Middle Earth-obsessed.

Middle Earth is threatened by a grave power. A prologue shows us how, thousands of years prior to this story, a wizard king named Sauron (Baker) crafted a ring to dominate all the races of the land – human, elf and dwarf – and give Sauron ultimate power over Middle Earth. The bravery of Isildur (Sinclair), a human king, defeats Sauron’s plans; Isildur’s greed, however, causes the ring to escape destruction and allow Sauron to eventually return. The ring ultimately falls into the hands of an adventuresome hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Holm) who brings it home to Bag End, in the village of Hobbiton, where it remained dormant.

Now, it is many years later and Bilbo is readying for a massive party to celebrate his 111th birthday. His old friend Gandalf the Grey (McKellen), a powerful wizard, arrives to celebrate with a wagon chock full of wonderful fireworks, and is greeted by Bilbo’s nephew, the bookish Frodo (Wood). Bilbo is worn out, although he looks much younger than his years would indicate. He wants to see the Misty Mountain again, and dwell among the elves in peace so he might finish the book he is writing of his adventures, “There and Back Again.”

At the party, Frodo’s friends Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), get into mischief involving Gandalf’s fireworks, setting the tone for their roles in the tale. Bilbo makes a sudden and startling departure at the party’s conclusion, using the ring to become invisible. The wizard immediately realizes that there is much more to Bilbo’s ring than even he had realized. He confronts Bilbo and convinces his old friend to leave the ring to Frodo. Gandalf warns Frodo, “Keep it secret; keep it safe,” then rides off to find out the truth of this ring.

When Gandalf returns to Bag End it to urge Frodo to flee. Nine ghastly riders, the nazghul, have been dispatched to retrieve the ring, which by Gandalf has determined to be THE ring. Frodo’s friend, gardener Sam Gamgee (Astin) overhears some of the discussion and is confronted by Gandalf, who asks what he heard. “N-nothing important. That is, I heard a good deal about a ring, and a dark lord, and something about the end of the world, but please, Mr. Gandalf, sir, don’t hurt me. Don’t turn me into anything… unnatural.”

Sam is sent to accompany Frodo. The hobbits run into Merry and Pippin, who are pilfering vegetables from a farmer. The reunion, however, is brief; the hobbits are nearly discovered by one of the terrifying and mysterious riders nazghul.

In the human town of Bree, they meet the ranger Aragorn (Mortensen), who saves them from a disturbing attack from the nazghul, and sets out to lead them for the elven settlement of Rivendell. However, the nazghul catch up to them at Weathertop, an ancient fortress, where Frodo is stabbed with a poisoned blade. Aragorn drives off their foes and steps up the pace to go to Rivendell, desperate to save Frodo. They are met along the way by Arwen (Tyler), an elven princess and daughter of Elrond, who puts Frodo on her horse and rides a thrilling race against the murderous nazghul. Gandalf, in the meantime, has been imprisoned by Saruman (Lee), head of his order, whom he had gone to consult. Saruman, believing that Mordor cannot be defeated this time, has decided to ally himself with Sauron. Gandalf finally manages to escape, using a giant eagle to fly from Isengard, the wizard’s tower which is Saruman’s base, but not before learning that Saruman is breeding an army of Uruk’hai, a crossbreed of orc and goblin that have none of the weaknesses of either race and many of the strengths.

Elrond calls a council to determine the fate of the ring, and after some deliberation, decides to send a small party to Mordor, to Mount Doom itself, to destroy the ring. This despite the objections of Boromir (Bean), son of the Steward of Gondor, the ruler of that land in the stead of a king who is lost – a king who turns out to be Aragorn, who doesn’t want the job.

There is much arguing and distrust among the races as to who will bear the ring, but finally Frodo speaks up and declares that he will carry the ring to Mordor, though he doesn’t know the way. Gandalf pledges to assist him, as does Aragorn and Boromir, as well as an elven prince named Legolas (Bloom) and a warrior dwarf named Gimli (Rhys-Davies). Sam, Merry and Pippin also proclaim that they are going wherever Frodo goes. Thus is formed the Fellowship of the Ring (cue dramatic orchestral music).

On the eve of their departing, Arwen presents Aragorn with a token of her love; Aragorn begs her not to give it to him, knowing she would give up her immortality for his love, but she gives it to him nonetheless. The fellowship then departs for Mordor.

The way is hard. In a snowy mountain pass, Saruman attacks them magically, forcing them to go the one way Gandalf didn’t want to travel; underground, through the mines of Moria, where Gimli’s cousin rules.

After surviving the attack of a hideous kraken at the gates of the mines, the Fellowship travels into Moria, and it becomes obvious that the entire colony of dwarves has been massacred. They are attacked just then by orcs, goblins and a massive cave troll and when it appears they will be surrounded, something frightens the thousands of orcs and goblins off; it turns out to be a balrog, a fire demon from the depths of the earth. Gandalf fights off the balrog, but then is yanked off a precipice, and is lost to the Fellowship.

Disheartened, the survivors of the fellowship make their way into Lothlorien, stronghold of the high elves, where they are greeted by King Celeborn (Csokas) and the ethereal Queen Galadriel (Blanchett), who allow the weary travelers rest. After receiving gifts of elven cloaks, waybread and other items, the Fellowship resumes its journey, now by river.

At camp they are ambushed by the Uruk’hai, Boromir is confronted by his own weakness, and the Fellowship is broken, with one member giving his life in battle.

The Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring is a captivating, compelling movie that is only the first step in a journey that will take us to the eventual fate of the ring, of those who bear it and of those who seek it as well. Given the performances here, it is easy to care very much about who gets there and in what shape they are in when they arrive. It is a journey we can all take together.

The visuals are stunning, jaw-dropping at the time this was released. The elven communities of Rivendell and Lothlorien are beautiful in an alien way, blending naturally with their forest environments. Hobbiton in the Shire, where Bilbo and Frodo live, looks exactly as I imagined it, calm, peaceful and rustic but with a hint of the English countryside implicit in every nook and cranny. The ruins of ancient kingdoms, statues of forgotten kings and warriors dot the journey’s landscape, giving the world an old and lived-in appearance. The attention to detail in establishing each individual place in the movie, each with its own specific character and feel, is nothing short of astounding.

Jackson has an epic palette to paint his picture, and he uses every color imaginable. The bright colors of the Shire contrast with the dark, stormy terrain of Mordor; the Elven territories are in a perpetual autumn, as their race prepares to leave Middle Earth, lending a further poignancy to the tale. Jackson obviously holds the source material in high regard, and stays as true to Tolkein’s words as is possible.

Wisely, the various characters are developed slowly, becoming who they are during the course of the movie. There is not a disappointing performance throughout; Mortensen carries a quiet intensity as Aragorn, McKellen a grandfatherly presence as Gandalf. The extras are well-cast, helping set the background tone in each location; folksy and a bit comic in Hobbiton, suspicious and tense in Bree, graceful yet sad in Lorien.

What makes this so successful a movie is what I would call a sense of place throughout; the architecture, scenery and characters all contribute to the overall mood. Middle Earth becomes a living, breathing place because of it, and the rich textures of Tolkein’s world come to life before our very eyes.

Overall, this can only be called a labor of love, and that love can clearly be seen on the screen in every frame. Jaw-dropping special effects and eye-popping scenery from the wilds of New Zealand dazzle at every turn. Howard Shore’s haunting score serves to enhance the film, and having Enya contribute a pair of vocalizations to the movie is a wise move; her ethereal voice is perfect for it. When this was released back in 2001, it not only met the high expectations of those anticipating (myself included) but exceeded them. It has, with its successors, become a true classic, a movie that I happily watch over and over again and enjoy almost as much as the first time I saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing spectacle, faithful to the book and exciting and heartwarming all at once. A modern classic that still bears repeated watching.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you’re not into fantasy, you’ll surely hate this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scary images and an epic battle sequence that depicts plenty of hacking and chopping.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Most major films have from time to time more than one unit shooting simultaneously, generally just two or three. There were occasions when this production had as many as ten units shooting at once.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $871.5M on a $93M production budget. The movie was a gigantic blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Straw Dogs (2011)

The Objective


The Objective

Just what IS the Objective?

(2008) Science Fiction (IFC) Jonas Ball, Matt Anderson, Jon Huertas, Michael C. Williams, Sam Hunter, Jeff Prewett, Kenny Taylor, Chems-Eddine Zinoune, Qzaibar Allal. Directed by Daniel Myrick

All is fair in love and war, but in war nothing is ever what it seems to be, particularly when the word “intelligence” is attached to it.

It is only months after 9-11 and the conflict in Afghanistan is just getting started. CIA agent Benjamin Keynes (Ball) is trying to find a cleric in the remote mountains of that country, ostensibly to get his blessings for the U.S. invasion to wipe out the Taliban. However, as Chief Warrant Officer Wally Tamer (Anderson) and his team of Sgt. Degetau (Huertas), Sgt. Trinoski (Williams), Sgt. Cole (Hunter), Sgt. Sadler (Prewett) and MSgt. Tanner (Taylor) discover, that was never their objective in the first place.

Apparently satellites have discovered a massive power surge in the mountains and the concern is that the Taliban has a super-weapon of some sort hidden away, and it’s their job to find it. With their native guide (Zinoune) leading the way they soon become hopelessly lost. That’s when the going gets strange.

Unexplainable noises and lights bedevil them. Phantom helicopters seem to be just over the next ridge but never appear. They are fired upon close by but when they arrive at the location that they were fired on from there’s no sign that there was anybody ever there. As ominous as these things are, things begin to get more dangerous – and more deadly. It soon becomes clear that Keynes knows far more than he’s telling them, and that they are up against an adversary that is beyond anything they have ever faced before.

Director Myrick was one of the guys responsible for The Blair Witch Project, and he brought along Williams who also starred in that movie. Like in his magnum opus, there is a low budget vibe here, a less-is-more style of filmmaking. Most of the tension is brought on by things off-camera, allowing the viewer’s imagination to take off with them.

He also utilizes a cast mainly of unknowns which has its plusses and minuses. On the plus side, you’re never distracted by famous faces. To the bad, the acting isn’t always top notch, although it is solid for the most part.

The problem here is the same one faced by our actual soldiers in Afghanistan; mostly we’re faced with a lot of scenes of soldiers marching around, going nowhere punctuated by scenes of sudden and extreme violence. It can be effective in places, but at times it feels like we’ve marched a long damn way to get there and our feet are starting to get tired.

Ball not only is the lead but he handles the voiceover narration as well (that sound you hear are mainstream critics cringing). He is tasked with playing a guy who holds everything inside, from information to emotions which can make it difficult for audiences to latch onto him as their proxy. He does as much as anybody could do I suppose, but still he remains difficult to really get to know throughout the movie and that was a bit bothersome to me as a viewer – although if Myrick was trying to get the audience to feel as in the dark as the soldiers, he succeeded.

There are a few optical effects near the end and it does get a little bit trippy, but on the whole this is a solid, tension-inducing sci-fi thriller. It got a laughable one-screen one day release on which it made $95, so I imagine they are hoping to make back their investment either in the DVD release or the cable run (which I understand is on Showtime at the moment). It’s really not too bad, but it is rather flawed – so be forewarned, at least more than the poor slobs who marched out to Afghanistan to find a cleric were.

WHY RENT THIS: A solid if unspectacular sci-fi horror film set in the Afghanistan war is at least somewhat unique.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is difficult to relate to the lead characters and despite some good action sequences, it’s mostly watching soldiers march in the desert.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of bad language, some violence and some disturbing visuals. I would feel okay with older teens watching this and maybe mature younger teens as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael C. Williams utters the same line in this movie (“Effing Savages”) as he does in Eduardo Sanchez’ 2006 horror movie Altered. Williams also starred in The Blair Witch Project which Myrick and Sanchez co-directed; whether or not the line of dialogue was an intentional link between the two films is unknown.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with Myrick at the Tribeca Film Festival is on the disk.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $95 on an unreported production budget; I think it’s safe to say that it lost money on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Cheri