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

The Attack


Sometimes what you don't know CAN hurt you.

Sometimes what you don’t know CAN hurt you.

(2012) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Ali Suliman, Uri Gavriel, Reymond Amsalem, Karim Saleh, Evgenia Dodena, Dvir Benedek, Abdallah El Akal, Ezra Dagan, Nathalie Rozanes, Ofri Fuchs, Michael Warshaviak, Eli Gorenstein, Vladimir Friedman, Esther Zewko, Ruba Salameh, Ramzi Makdessi, Ihab Salameh, Hassan Yassine, Nisrine Seksek. Directed by Ziad Doueiri

The person that we should know best is our spouse. In an ideal relationship, there are no secrets (at least no serious ones) and we can safely say that we know the person we are married to better than anyone else does – perhaps better than we know ourselves.

Dr. Amin Jaafari is a surgeon of Palestinian descent who has made a place for himself in Israeli society. He and his beautiful wife Siham (Amsalem) live in a lovely home and are accepted by their Jewish neighbors and colleagues. When he becomes the first Palestinian to win a major award for medicine in Israel, he figures he’s made it, although he’s a bit miffed that Siham isn’t there to share in his moment of glory after she goes to Nazareth to visit her family.

The next day, a bomb explodes in a nearby restaurant. 17 people die and dozens are injured. Dr. Jaafari is busy trying to save the dying and help the wounded. He sees firsthand the results of terrorism and doesn’t like what he sees. He goes home and falls into an exhausted sleep but is awakened early in the morning by a call from his friend Raveed (Benedek), an Israeli police officer, summoning him to the hospital. He figures there are more casualties but that is not why he is there. He is brought down to the morgue and is shocked to discover that one of the bodies from the bombing is that of his wife Siham. Half of her body has been blown away. The good doctor faints dead away.

His nightmare is just beginning however. It turns out that the authorities suspect that Siham was a suicide bomber. At first Dr. Jaafari is incredulous. Siham a terrorist? No….HELL No! Nobody knows his wife like he does after all. Dr. Jaafari is certain that when the terrorists release their video as they inevitably do that she will be exonerated. However Captain Moshe (Gavriel) is certain and puts the doctor through an intense interrogation until at last they are satisfied that he knew nothing of the attack. However his neighbors and friends aren’t so sure and distance themselves from him or worse, vandalize his home. His colleague Kim (Dodena) and Raveed stick up for him but Dr. Jaafari is being backed into a corner. Finally when he is given tangible evidence of his wife’s guilt, he journeys to Nablus to find out how she could do such a thing – and who was responsible for turning her into a monster.

As you can tell from the synopsis this is a very intense subject matter. Suliman, an Israeli actor of Arabic descent, has appeared in a couple of high-profile Hollywood projects (Kingdom of Lies, Body of Lies and the upcoming Lone Survivor) and has also appeared in some very good local productions (primarily Paradise Now, Lemon Tree and Zaytoun). This is his best performance to date. It is wrenching to watch his anguish but also his rage. How could he have missed it? Why did she do this awful thing?

To answer those questions he has to go to Nablus and he finds himself in the awkward position of being the husband to a martyr whose death has been glorified. The more he talks to those who may or may not have had anything to do with her choice to do this monstrous thing, the more it becomes obvious that these people are intractable; reason doesn’t enter into it. Dr. Jaafari isn’t trusted and while his wife’s sacrifice keeps him from getting a bullet through his brain, neither does it give him any clout whatsoever when exploring the chain of events that led to her fateful decision.

In the end it was her visit to a site of an Israeli aerial attack that led her on that terrible path. While the movie does get a little slow getting to Nablus, once it’s there we realize that part of the problem in the Middle East is that they are in this awful spiral which neither side will put a halt to by simply saying “We will not retaliate. We won’t escalate. We will just stop.” It is a kind of insanity, one born out of hatred and fear. One idiot reviewer chastised the film for not providing answers. Seriously dude? Some questions have no answers. Sometimes the truth is unpleasant and horrible. One sees a movie like this and understands that the hope for peace in the Middle East is like picking out the right grain of sand on a beach. It requires patience and  perhaps more time than a single life can survive. There are no answers here and maybe Dr. Jaafari isn’t asking the right questions. Either way this is the kind of movie that will generate a great deal of dialogue on its own – a movie that works equally well in the heart and in the head. Talk about a precious grain of sand on the beach…

REASONS TO GO: Strong performance by Suliman. Raises some intriguing questions.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the images are pretty disturbing, there’s some violence and a bit of sexuality and foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only Arabic or Muslim country to show the film has been Morocco. Many cited the reason for that was that it was filmed in Israel.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Day Night Day Night

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Heartbeats

Mammoth


Mammoth

This is the kind of penthouse view you can only see in movies.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Gael Garcia Bernal, Michelle Williams, Sophie Nyweide, Marife Necesito, Tom McCarthy, Run Srinikornchot, Jan David G. Nicdao, Martin de los Santos, Maria Esmeralda del Carmen, Perry Dizon, Joseph Mydell. Directed by Lukas Moodysson

The world doesn’t exist in a vacuum; what happens in New York might well ordain what happens in Luzon, or Bombay or Bangkok for that matter. Even our most insignificant actions in other words have consequences.

Leo (Bernal), Ellen (Williams) and their daughter Jackie (Nyweide) are a happy family. Sunday mornings are comprised of family tickle fests in their expensive Manhattan loft. Still, even a good tickle fest must come to an end and Leo, a video game designer, must jet off to Thailand with his business partner Bob (McCarthy) to sign a multi-million dollar deal that will make the already wealthy Leo even wealthier. Since Bob is the business end of the partnership, Leo has little to do but show up and smile; after doing too much sightseeing he begins to get bored.

Ellen is none too fond of Leo’s absence and her stressful position as a pediatric E.R doctor. She is suffering from insomnia, much of it due to sexual frustration but also due to a case that she’s handling in the E.R. of a child who was stabbed in the stomach by her own mother. She is also feeling disconnected from her daughter, a feeling that is further heightened by Jackie’s growing closeness with her nanny.

Gloria (Necesito), the said nanny, hails from the Philippines and has two boys there – Salvador (Nicdao) and Manuel (de los Santos) who miss her terribly and beg her to come home whenever she calls. She sends most of her earnings home to them to build them a home of their own (they live with Gloria’s mother) and put them through college eventually so they can make a better life for themselves. Jackie is latching onto her because she is basically the only one paying attention to her and treating her like a person. Gloria for her part teaches her Tagolog and takes her to the planetarium, which is Jackie’s favorite place.

The distance between Leo, Ellen and Jackie is growing and Leo finds that he is being tempted by a sweet Thai prostitute named, ironically enough, Cookie (Srinikornchot) who has a daughter of her own. There are a lot of mama issues in this movie.

Swedish director Moodysson (in his English language debut) has taken a lot of heat for implying the link between women working and child issues. Quite frankly he has a point there – women are being forced more and more into the workplace and something has to suffer for it and generally, it’s the relationship with their kids that has to take a back burner simply because they aren’t around as much. It’s not an indictment of women, gang, it’s just a statement of fact.

Bernal is a greatly underrated actor best known for his work in Y Tu Mama Tambien. His role is the least defined of the three members of the family but Bernal makes it memorable. He plays the husband as conflicted and a little bit weak-willed. He is guilty about his fling with Cookie and guilty about deserting his family but a little fuzzy on what’s really going on with his wife and daughter.

Williams, so good in Wendy and Lucy, shows that she has the ability to do an abundance of roles. Self-assured as a surgeon she is nonetheless flawed and occasionally unsure of herself as a woman. She is jealous of Gloria’s closeness to her daughter but doesn’t know how to develop that closeness herself. Instead, she finds herself giving that tenderness to the daughter of another mother. Williams owns the role the same way she owned the role of Wendy in the previous film; and the two roles could not be more different. I see statuettes and red carpets in her future.

The soundtrack is magnificent and uses songs by the electropop band Ladytron effectively to create upbeat moods, which the movie needs in places. It creeps along most of the time and has a languorous pace that can use the occasional shot of adrenaline and Ladytron supplies that nicely.

While the women play the pivotal roles in this movie, I came away thinking it was more about the way families drift apart in the modern world, given the demands of work and of human interactions. In that sense, this is a movie that hits the mark nicely, but it takes a long time to get down a short road and some might find that infuriating. Whether you agree with all of Moodysson’s conclusions is kind of beside the point. It’s whether or not you’ll enjoy the journey and I think it can go either way for most people. It’s worth taking the time to find out if you’re one of those who’ll like it though.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bernal and Williams. Establishes dialogue regarding privilege and those who support it. Nice use of Ladytron on the soundtrack.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a glacial pace not unlike the title creature. Some will find the movie’s plot controversial and its conclusions unpalatable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes going on here and some scenes where children are put in jeopardy.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Thailand, the Philippines, Sweden and New York City.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on an unreported production budget; I’d guess the movie broke even or thereabouts.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Bedazzled (2000)