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

Dolphin Tale 2


Life is a splash!

Life is a splash!

(2014) Family (Warner Brothers) Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Bethany Hamilton, Charles Martin Smith, Julia Winter, Austin Stowell, Austin Highsmith, Juliana Harkavy, Betty Landin, Denisea Wilson, Carlos Gomez, Julia Jordan, Tom Nowicki, Taylor Blackwell. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

The inspirational story of Dolphin Tale introduced us to Winter, a dolphin rescued by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium whose tail had to be amputated after being caught in the wire from a crab trap. After being fitted with a prosthetic tail, she became an inspiration to disabled persons everywhere – and to a lot of non-disabled people as well.

Now Winter is in a different kind of trouble. Her long-time companion at the Aquarium has passed away and she has fallen into a deep depression, even lashing out and injuring her friend Sawyer (Gamble) who has been with her from the beginning. Sawyer is now a handsome high school teen whose relationship with Winter has not gone unnoticed by the marine biology community – he’s been invited on a semester at sea program normally limited to college students. It’s quite a big deal and everyone expects him to go but Sawyer is conflicted; he doesn’t want to leave with Winter in serious difficulties.

Winter has become a big attraction for the CMA which has embarked on an ambitious expansion program led by their new board head Philip Hordern (Nowicki)  who is concerned that the star attraction might be taken away. In fact, USDA inspector (Smith) has given the aquarium 30 days to pair Winter with another female dolphin or the government will force them to move her into an environment where she can be properly socialized.

It so happens that the CMA has a female dolphin that they’re taking care of, but Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick) seems reluctant to pair the two. His reasons for it are correct though – the dolphin they have rescued is making a full recovery and there is no reason to keep the perfectly healthy dolphin at the aquarium whose mission has always been Rescue, Rehab, Release. Clay’s hot-headed daughter Hazel (Zuehlsdorff) is furious at her father whom she sees as abandoning Winter, but also disrespecting her for not soliciting her input. Because she has a PhD and everything, right?

So the dolphin will be released and Winter will be moved. Sawyer mopes around and despite the advice of his mom (Judd) and curmudgeonly Dr. McCarthy (Freeman) who designed Winter’s appendage still doesn’t know if he wants to seize the day. But the thing is, where there’s life, there’s Hope.

This isn’t quite as good as the first Tale. It’s a bit more convoluted and a bit more cliche, with the kids more or less running the show and the adults generally treating them as equals. In that sense, the movie doesn’t talk down to its audience although there’s not a lot of reality here – teens and tweens aren’t generally handed the reins of an operation the size of a CMA, particularly when the welfare of animals are concerned.

Gamble has matured into a handsome young man which is sure to set a lot of hormonal tween girl hearts a-flutter. Zuehlsdorff is a bit shrill in places but manages to capture the child-parent conflict pretty solidly and allows herself to come off as illogical and overly emotional in a situation when her father is thinking of the welfare of the animal above his own personal needs. It’s a good life lesson.

In fact, the movie is filled with them. There’s a whole lot of information on the various marine animals depicted here which in addition to the dolphins includes sea turtles and Roofus, the zany pelican from the first movie who is even more present here. In fact, Roofus gets more screen time than Judd or Freeman. Take from that what you will.

The adult cast is solid and the look of the film sparkles. Yes, there are some CGI dolphin moments and occasionally those moments are obvious but for the most part this is a good looking movie giving a very alluring quality to Florida in general. Being familiar with the Clearwater area, I can tell you that it captures the area nicely.

The movie can be a little bland in places. The filmmakers wanted the movie to be wholesome and for the most part it is to the point where it’s so inoffensive that there’s nothing to really hold onto. There are no antagonists to speak of; it’s just a bad situation which is the way life generally is. There are appearances by surfer Bethany Hamilton as herself – you might know her from Soul Surfer, an inspirational movie made on her own life – and whose presence on the current season of The Amazing Race is likely to boost up the box office here a little bit.

I honestly can’t fault the movie much. It doesn’t do anything truly wrong, it just doesn’t really excel either. For the most part, I can give it a mild thumbs up for family audiences. Those without kids may find it mildly diverting particularly if they love dolphins but adults may find the movie tedious. Watching the dolphins do their thing is definitely the best part of the movie. The humans around them – not so much.

REASONS TO GO: Some moments of grace, particularly when the actual dolphins are involved. Wholesome.
REASONS TO STAY: Ham-handed kids movie cliches. Lacks realism. Bland.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some mild dolphin peril but otherwise suitable for all family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth movie in which Judd and Freeman have appeared together in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoot
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dead Silence