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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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!

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

The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker

This is about to be a very bad day at the office for Staff Sgt. William James.

(Summit) Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo. Directed by Karthryn Bigelow

The movie opens up with a quotation from New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges: “War is a drug.” That is to say, the exhilaration brought on by the adrenaline rush of imminent death and constant danger is addictive. At least, so it seems to be for some.

Staff Sgt. William James (Renner) is a bomb defuser for an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, responsible for rendering harmless roadside bombs, car bombs and other devices meant to cause harm to soldiers and civilians alike. It is Iraq in 2004, and the U.S. military has become entrenched in a war no longer justifiable, at least to our minds. Those who are there might see things a little differently.

James has joined a support crew of Specialist Owen Eldridge (Geraghty) and the team’s nominal leader Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Mackie) due to the grisly death of his predecessor, Sgt. Matt Thompson (Pearce). This is indeed a dangerous business, and the support crew needs to be as alert and on their toes as the bomb defuser or else people die. The support crew keeps watch for Iraqis with detonation devices, snipers or other means of causing the defuser to be unable to do his job. The support crew, particularly Eldridge, had failed to do this and Thompson wound up paying the price for it.

Eldridge and Sanborn have about a month left in their rotation and their only concern is making it out alive. While Sanborn is a pretty by-the-book guy, James is another kind of animal entirely. He is reckless, taking chances not only with his own life but with those of his team. He disobeys protocol without batting an eyelash. The only thing that keeps him from being locked up is that he is absolutely superb at what he does, taking terrifyingly complex devices and figuring out how to defuse them safely.

He seems to be an adrenaline junkie on the surface, but he has another side to him, one he doesn’t allow his team to see. He befriends a young Iraqi boy who sells pirated DVDs; when the boy is killed by insurgents, James loses it. He is almost cocky in his arrogance but shows a great deal of vulnerability when he lets his guard down – which is admittedly not all that often.

Still, he is called upon to take out bomb after bomb in the heat of an Iraqi summer. How long will his luck last – and how long will his skill save him?

This is the reigning winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and you certainly can argue that it deserved it. While there is much room for debate over the morality of the war, this isn’t about whether we should be there and instead tackles the question of how the stress of being there affects those who deal with the situation day after day.

Jeremy Renner was until now a well-regarded but not well-known actor but all that has changed. The performance he gives here is a career-maker, one that will be associated with him for the rest of his life. His portrayal is nuanced and layered; you get a sense of what motivates SSgt. James but only tantalizing glimpses; much of what is behind the bravado is inferred, and Renner does a marvelous job of giving you clues without being overt.

Lost in the accolades for Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for her work here and for Renner, who was nominated for a Best Actor, is the supporting cast. Mackie and Geraghty in particular deliver top notch work, giving Renner all the room he needs to shine.

Bigelow ratchets the tension up with every mission the team goes on. Each bomb is more fiendish and complicated than the last. Because we come to care for these characters, the tension works much better because we don’t want to see them get blown to pieces.

At times the imagery is simply horrifying, much more so than any horror movie can deliver because you realize that the perpetrators are human beings and that these kinds of things really do go on, with our servicemen and women having to deal with the emotional fallout of these horrors. Some of what we see is almost beyond imagining, like a young boy who has an explosive device surgically implanted in him, or an unwilling man who has a suicide bomb strapped to him. The cruelty of those who would do such things makes you wonder if it might not be better for everyone involved if we didn’t bomb the whole damn country back into the Stone Age. Of course, we have to keep in mind that they are the actions of a fanatic few, not the entire population but the thought is certainly tempting at times.

The Hurt Locker is probably not going to change your mind about war. War is Hell, as the saying goes, and Hell is an unfathomably hot and cruel place. The soldiers in this movie are getting a guided tour, and through them, so do we. Unfortunately, movies set in the Iraqi War have not done well at the box office, even superb ones like this one, but this is the kind of movie that you will remember for a long time after having seen it.

WHY RENT THIS: Great intensity from beginning to end. Renner gives a career-making performance. We care enough about the characters that the tension is increased exponentially because of it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of war violence and the kind of language you’d expect in these situations. Quite frankly, it’s the tension more than anything else that makes this not for the faint of heart.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing movie (adjusted for inflation) to ever win a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed, but given the honors accrued by the movie after the home video release, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a special edition sometime around Christmas.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Toy Story 3