The Wall (2017)


Everything is more intense when you’re under fire.

(2017) War Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli. Directed by Doug Liman

 

In the desert, there is not much beyond scorching sun, deep blue sky and wind-whipped sand. It is dusty, hot and dry. Humans can survive there but far from comfortably. It is a terrible place to have a war.

And yet we’ve spent the last 16 years and counting in the desert at war. In this movie, it is 2007 and the war in Iran is “winding down” as the opening credits inform us. Remembering that this is the era of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” faux pas of George W. Bush, the movie begins on a wry, humorous note. We see that there are two Marines – Shane Matthews (Cena), a sniper and “Eyes” Isaac (Taylor-Johnson), his spotter – observing a pipeline construction site. Their banter is the kind between brothers or bar buddies; occasionally vulgar, snarky for certain but affectionate nonetheless.

All the men working on the pipeline are dead. The spotter thinks they are all head shots; the sniper is not so sure. If the former is right, then there is a highly skilled sniper in the neighborhood. If the latter is correct, then it was likely an insurgent patrol that surprised the construction workers and is likely long gone. The two men have been sitting in the hot son in full camouflage for 22 hours. Matthews has about had enough. There has been no movement. Nobody is there.

He heads down to the construction site to make sure and to request that the two be picked up and returned to base. There is a crack-thump and down goes the Marine. His buddy runs out to help him and crack-thump he’s hit as well. Isaac is forced to take shelter behind a crumbling wall, one which is barely standing on its own and threatens to come down on top of him if the wind gets too high.

He is forced to take the bullet out of his own leg in a squirm-inducing moment and then needs to look to the survival of himself and his buddy who appears to be unconscious or dead. The outlook is grim; the radio antenna has been damaged so all he can pick up are people who are close by; his canteen has also been shot and the water drained out. The dehydration combined with his serious wound is likely to kill him before base camp comes looking for them.

At first things take a turn for the better; Isaac gets in contact with a patrol team who must be close by but when they keep asking for his exact position, he begins to get suspicious, suspicions which are confirmed when the man on the radio tells him that he is the sniper who has shot him. The two strike up a conversation; it turns out that the sniper is the legendary Juba, who has 75 confirmed American kills to his credit. He seems eager to get to know Isaac who wants nothing more than to figure out where Juba is so that he can shoot him.

It becomes a game of cat and mouse with Juba threatening to shoot off the face of Matthews if Isaac doesn’t answer the questions that Juba poses, the most important being “Why are you still here?” That’s a question Americans have been asking as well.

Liman has constructed a taut three-person movie that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats from minute one. It’s a short but sweet movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome and although there is a bit of a lull in the middle, mostly keeps the tension at a high level throughout. The movie is shot so well you can almost feel the sand getting in your eyes.

There is an authentic feel to the film from a military standpoint. I’m not ex-military myself but the characters act as I would think well-trained Marines would; they are imperfect and have their moments when they let their guard down but nonetheless they (particularly Taylor-Johnson) act with a sense that the training has kicked in as the situation is assessed, immediate needs seen to and a plan to get out of a bad situation put together. We see all of this from the comfort of our theater seats (or our living room sofa as the case may be) and likely feel quite grateful that it is not us cringing beneath that poorly constructed wall.

Cena spends most of the movie lying face down in the dirt but this is maybe his best performance of his fairly brief acting career. The WWE superstar has always impressed me with his screen presence but over time he has developed some real acting skills. I’m not sure he’s at the level of a Dwayne Johnson yet but as wrestlers turned thespians go, he certainly has the tools to construct a pretty satisfying career and maybe more down the line.

Taylor-Johnson has been in my opinion on the fringe of breaking it big with some fairly good performances in fairly good movies, but nothing has really brought him to the A-list quite yet. Much of the film rests on his shoulders as he is interacting with a voice on his radio more than with a live actor as Cena is mostly unconscious in the film. That takes a lot of chops and fortunately Taylor-Johnson has them. We shall see if this finally puts him over the top and gets him that role that will elevate him into the next level.

This is a movie in which sound plays an unusually important part and Liman’s sound team comes through in spades. From the sound of the wind whipping the sand around, the crack-thump of the gunshots and the metallic bangs of the construction site, the sounds make the movie. We really don’t have a lot to look at other than endless vistas of sand and the half-finished construction site. We need the additional stimulation and we get it.

Amazon Studios helped to produce this, likely with a goal of getting their Prime users to watch this at home, but this is one of those rare movies that I think despite having an intimate setting should be seen in a theater where the outstanding sound work and impressive visuals will work best. This hasn’t gotten a ton of buzz amongst indie film fans but it deserves some. This is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out and at least here in Orlando is playing in enough theaters that there’s no excuse not to find it.

REASONS TO GO: The expected route is not taken. Taylor-Johnson and Cena; who knew? There is a lot of authenticity to this film.
REASONS TO STAY: The middle third is a little bit slow. Juba as a disembodied voice lacks menace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of salty language and a fair amount of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicholas Irving, the Army Rangers sniper who served as technical adviser for the film, was nicknamed “The Reaper” during his tour of duty.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Phone Booth
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Last Shaman

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Allied


The name is Pitt, Brad Pitt.

The name is Pitt, Brad Pitt.

(2016) War Drama (Paramount) Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, Simon McBurney, Matthew Goode, Marion Bailey, Ian Batchelor, Ėric Thëobald, Josh Dylan, Camille Cottin, August Diehl, Anton Blake, Fleur Poad, Vincent Latorre, Daniel Betts, Sally Messham, Charlotte Hope, Celeste Dodwell, Maggie O’Brien, Anton Lesser, Angelique Joan. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Espionage is a lonely affair. After all, how can you trust anyone who it is a given that they are at the very least manipulating the truth if not outright lying? Relationships do not survive without trust, after all.

Max Vatan (Pitt) is a Canadian airman/spy who parachutes into North Africa during World War II. His assignment is to make it to Casablanca and there attend a party where he will assassinate the German ambassador (Blake). Assisting him will be Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), a member of the French resistance who will pose as his wife and get him into the party.

At first, both of them are consummate professionals, maintaining the illusion of a loving marriage while retaining their objectivity but that objectivity begins to crumble. Imminent danger turns feigned affection to the real McCoy. On the eve of the party, they go out to the desert to clear their heads but a sandstorm traps them in their car where they finally smash through their pretensions and give in to what they’ve both been feeling.

After completing their mission, they return to London and marry; shortly thereafter Marianne gives birth to a daughter in the midst of an air raid. They find a quaint cottage in Hampstead while Max is a desk jockey in the British war department. One afternoon on what is supposed to be a weekend off, he is summoned to headquarters and his superior (Harris) and a officious military intelligence officer (McBurney) drop a bombshell of their own; Marianne is in fact a German spy. She’d assumed the identity of the real Marianne Beauséjour after murdering her. They’ve intercepted transmissions of classified material that they have traced to her. Max is given false information to make sure that Marianne can discover. If that information turns up in a new transmission, then all doubt will be removed and Max is ordered to execute her by his own hand in that case. Failure to do so will result in his own execution.

Max, of course, doesn’t believe that the love of his life and the mother of his child could betray him like that. Despite orders to the contrary, he does some sleuthing of his own trying to discover the truth about his wife. Is she, as he believes, falsely accused or has she lied to him all this time and is actually using him?

To Zemeckis’ credit, he doesn’t tip his hand one way or the other. The audience is completely in the dark of Marianne’s innocence or guilt until the very end of the film. Also to his credit we care about both characters enough that we are genuinely rooting for the accusations to be false. It is also a credit to both actors that their relationship is completely believable.

What isn’t believable is the whole trope of that the accused spy, if she is a spy, must die by the hand of her husband. I suppose that the logic there is that it proves the continued loyalty of the Max character and that he isn’t an accomplice to Marianne’s alleged chicanery but it is the kind of thing that doesn’t make sense. It would seem more logical that if Marianne is guilty that anybody but Max execute her. Certainly war can change morality but it doesn’t seem to me that forcing a man to kill his wife would do anything but turn him against the agency making such an order. There are also plenty of ways to get Marianne to receive false information without involving her husband. It would be in fact more efficient to leave him ignorant. Of course that would also remove the tension of the movie’s third act.

Pitt and Cotillard are both legitimate movie stars and with all that implies; Zemeckis is a master at utilizing the abilities of the stars he works with. Pitt and Cotillard have never been as radiant and charismatic as they are here. They both captivate equally and their relationship as lovers makes absolute sense and is believable without question. The movie is essentially a primer for the advantages of star power.

What I liked most about the film was that it is very a movie that puts to lie “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” This is absolutely the way they used to make ‘em like. It is no accident that the first act is set in Casablanca; the iconic Casablanca is not only name-checked but several elements from it are slyly referenced. The costuming is absolutely superb. I don’t often notice the costumes but they are superb here; it wouldn’t surprise me if the film gets an Oscar nomination in that department. Joanna Johnston, the costume designer, certainly deserves one here.

What I didn’t like about the movie is that it runs a little bit too long particularly during the second act. Da Queen, in the interest of full disclosure, actually liked this part of the movie much more than I did; she felt that Max acted the way she thought any good husband would.  In all honesty I can’t dispute that, but again that’s why any intelligence agency would not inform the husband of an accused spy that she’s under investigation, if for no other reason that they would better be able to determine his own complicity if any in that manner.

I have to admit that I liked the movie a few days after seeing it than I did when I left the theater and it’s entirely possible that when I view this a second time (as I certainly will since Da Queen really liked the movie much more than I did) I will find myself liking it even more. That said, it did leave me a bit flat despite everything it had going for it; that could be chalked up to me not feeling well when I saw it. There are definitely some flaws here but for those who love movies the way they used to be you’re bound to find this right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: Pitt and Cotillard are legitimate movie stars who use their star appeal to full potential here. It’s an old-fashioned Hollywood movie in the best sense of the term.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long and drags a whole lot in the middle third. Some of the plot points lack credibility.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some wartime espionage violence, some sexuality, a brief scene of drug use and a slight amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In one scene, a photo of King George VI can be seen behind Jared Harris. He played the monarch in the Netflix series The Crown.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Jones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Almost Christmas

The Siege of Jadotville


Jamie Dornan leads the charge.

Jamie Dornan leads the charge.

(2016) War Drama (Netflix) Jamie Dornan, Mark Strong, Jason O’Mara, Emmanuelle Seigner, Guillaume Canet, Mikael Persbrandt, Fiona Glascott, Sam Keeley, Michael McElhatton, Conor MacNeill, Roman Raftery, Danny Sapani, Melissa Haiden, Leon Clingman, Conor Quinlan, Mike Noble, Charlie Kelly, Alexander Tops, Fionn O’Shea, Danny Keogh. Directed by Richie Smyth

 

In 1961, shortly after being granted independence from Belgian rule, the Republic of the Congo (today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) suffered internal strife and civil war. Violence broke out almost immediately after independence and Belgium sent in paratroopers to protect white citizens who were fleeing the country, particularly from the Katanga region.

The United Nations, under the leadership of Dag Hammarskjöld (Persbrandt), saw the alarming developments as both the Soviets and NATO began backing rival factions in the Congo. It was decided to deploy a peacekeeping force, the first that the UN had ever done. Composed primarily of Irish troops under the command of Pat Quinlan (Dornan), they reported to the UN Secretary General’s aide Conor Cruise O’Brien (Strong) and were sent to the tiny outpost of Jadotville.

There they found themselves surrounded by rebel forces loyal to Moise Tshombe (Sapani) and under the command of Rene Faulques (Canet), a Belgian mercenary. With no support and in an untenable position, they were ordered to hold Jadotville and for eight days, they did. It was a heroic defense, but it would later be swept under the rug even in Ireland, where the deeds of the soldiers weren’t recognized until 44 years after the events took place.

Dornan is best known for playing Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey but he does a pretty competent job of portraying the resolute but inexperienced Quinlan. The Irish troops refer to themselves as “war virgins” and so they are, most of them having seen no combat in their lives more violent than a Friday night at their local pub. Unlike Grey, Pat Quinlan is a loyal family man with a beautiful wife (Glascott) waiting for him at home and although he has caught the eye of local adviser Madame LaFontagne (Seigner) he remains faithful and if you’ve seen Emmanuelle Seigner before, you’ll understand how difficult a proposition that is.

There are plenty of white actors here that play out the events that were detailed in the book by Declan Power on the siege; however despite the fact that this movie is set in Africa there are virtually no Africans in the cast although Sapani as Tshombe does stand out. Apparently colonialist attitudes are still prevalent in the West.

It has to be said that one sees a war movie for the battle scenes and first-time feature director Smyth does a competent job staging them; there isn’t quite the you-are-there quality of Saving Private Ryan or the horror of Apocalypse Now but nonetheless the scenes are thrilling and suspenseful. Action fans will get their money’s worth.

Still, there is a good deal of chest-thumping and platitude shouting and those items turn this from what could have been an interesting study of an event that history had buried to a standard direct to home video disappointment. It’s not a snoozefest by any stretch of the imagination but I found the movie to be uninspiring and considering what the soldiers went to during the siege and even more to the point after it – events of which are glossed over in an almost criminal fashion. I would have liked to have seen a good movie about the siege and the Congo Crisis but this frankly wasn’t it.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the battle sequences were well-staged. Dornan does a solid job as the lead.
REASONS TO STAY: A slow moving story with too much chest-thumping turns this into movie-of-the-week territory. There are hardly any Africans here to tell this story of events in Africa.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of war violence and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Conor Quinlan, who plays PJ in the movie, is the grandson of the real Pat Quinlan.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Beast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Accountant

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!

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

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!

Pearl Harbor


It's a bomb!!!!

It’s a bomb!!!!

(2001) War Drama (Touchstone) Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, Jaime King, William Lee Scott, Greg Zola, Ewen Bremner, Catherine Kellner, Jennifer Garner, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael Shannon, Tom Sizemore, Mako, John Fujioka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Colm Feore, Dan Aykroyd, William Fichtner, Beth Grant. Directed by Michael Bay

Nicol Williamson as Merlin in the John Boorman film Excalibur once said “It is the doom (of men) that they forget.” It has only been in the last few years of the 20th century (thanks in no small part to the efforts of men like Messrs. Hanks, Spielberg and Brokaw) that Americans have begun to wake up to the sacrifices of the Americans who comprised what Brokaw eloquently called “The Greatest Generation.”

The attack at Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, in many ways remains America’s defining moment. It is a moment of ashes and pain, of blood and despair, written in the bullets and bombs of the Japanese and signed by our own arrogance to think it couldn’t happen to us. From that moment of despair was wakened a world power, one which has dominated the politics of this planet for the half-century since.

Given the success of Saving Private Ryan, it was inevitable that someone would make an epic movie about the date that will live in infamy. Tora, Tora, Tora has been the watershed Pearl Harbor movie up till now, but was only a marginal success when it was released. America is ready for a blockbuster.

Enter Michael Bay, the director behind Armageddon. In some ways, he was the ideal choice to make a movie about the attack. He knows spectacle and can handle immense scale. I’ve always thought him a little rough around the edges when it came to handling characterization and dealing with emotions, but he can be counted on to show the scope of the devastation, to blow our minds with explosions, twisted metal and bodies shredded before our eyes.

Of course he can. However, Bay had his own agenda. Not only did he want to tell the story of the battle, but he wanted to simultaneously elevate himself to the status currently enjoyed by James Cameron. In other words, he wanted this to be his Titanic, and therefore he inserted a love triangle that frames the drama of the tragedy of the attack.

Rafe McCawley (Affleck) is a pilot “born to fly.” He is everything heroic and noble about the American prewar spirit, the quintessence of the “boy next door.” His best friend Danny Walker(Hartnett) is also a pilot, and has always been on the edges of Rafe’s shadow, a good man in his own right but a reflection of Rafe’s glory. Rafe meets and falls in love with Evelyn Stewart (Beckinsale), a beautiful nurse. McCawley is itching for action and requests a transfer to the Eagle Squadron, a squad of American pilots assisting in the Battle of Britain. Rafe and Evelyn continue their love affair by letter, but when Rafe is shot down over the English Channel and is presumed dead, Evelyn is inconsolable.

As time goes by, both Evelyn and Danny get over the grief and find solace in each other. They are transferred to the plum naval assignment – Pearl Harbor – and spend most of their days in bars, cafes and at the movies, or just mooning over each other. However, a monkey wrench is thrown into their idyllic situation; Rafe returns from Europe, having been hiding in occupied France for nearly a year. He arrives at Pearl to find his best friend and the love of his life together, and it tears him apart. Of course, Rafe arrives on December 6, 1941. The next morning, all heck breaks loose.

The battle scenes themselves are very well done. Wave after wave of Japanese planes attack the fleet in battleship row, and as bomb after bomb and torpedo after torpedo finds its mark, the proud U.S. Pacific Fleet begins to sink. Some of the sailors react with panic and horror, and freeze in the face of this unthinkable attack. Others, such as real-life hero Dorie Miller (Gooding) find their destiny of glory at hand.

For Stewart, she finds chaos and overwhelming horror as the wounded and the dead begin to find their way to the hospital. She and the nurses must make heroic measures to save some of the more gravely wounded, as overtaxed doctors become nearly superhuman in their efforts. The hospital sequences are among the best in the movie and received some of the least attention.

The movie should have ended there, but goes on for nearly an hour afterwards, ending up with the bombing raid on Tokyo led by the charismatic Jimmy Doolittle (Baldwin). If you’re planning to see this movie, prepare to knock about three hours out of your day and be sure you use the restroom before the movie starts or at least be prepared to use the pause button pretty regularly.

The critics have blasted this movie, and in all frankness, I get the feeling that many of them are reviewing the movie’s extreme budget (budgeted somewhere around $140 million, it is the highest film budget ever approved by a studio to that time) and that there is a great deal of anti-Bay sentiment. Michael Bay isn’t particularly my favorite director, but he does an excellent job on the battle sequence. The biggest problem with Pearl Harbor is that it’s probably about half an hour too long at the very least. The love triangle is a bit predictable, as are the fates of many of the supporting characters (see if you can pick out the doomed players from the crowd).

Pearl Harbor got compared with Titanic, perhaps unfairly, mainly because both movies take a well-known tragedy and frame it with a love triangle. However, whereas the love story enhances the tragedy in Cameron’s movie, it slows down Pearl Harbor. Also, Bay is not known for subtlety and occasionally goes too far; one rousing speech in which FDR (Voight) rises to his feet, polio-stricken as he was, staggers the imagination and immediately yanks your suspension of disbelief to overload.

Affleck, who took a few hits in the reviews for his performance, is actually quite good as McCawley. Affleck is given really a very minimally realized character whose basic purpose is to be heroic, and carries it off impressively well or at least as well as he could given the limitations of Rafe’s personality. Both Hartnett and Beckinsale were beginning their careers at this point; both have continued to improve upon their performances here, particularly Beckinsale who has gained fame for her work in the popular Underworld movies. As for the supporting cast, Baldwin and Sizemore (as the proverbial crusty Sergeant from the Bronx) are memorable, but Voight chews the scenery like the catering truck had gone on strike. Gooding is, as usual, excellent, but he has little more than a cameo.

There is a definitive movie on Pearl Harbor waiting to be made, and unfortunately, this one isn’t it. Still, for all the negativity, here are the positive things: It’s epic size and scope are truly awe-inspiring. It manages, at many points, to raise patriotic fervor to a fever pitch. Thirdly, it poignantly reminds those of us who are too young to remember just what a price was paid for victory, and how badly we were beaten at Pearl Harbor.

Finally, this was a movie that needed to be made when it did, while many of the veterans of that war are still alive. Those I saw of that generation in the movie theater where I first saw the film were visibly affected by the movie, and that has to go to the good on Bay’s ledger.

Da Queen, who in a bit of uncalculated irony dined on sushi before seeing this movie, was a tear-streaked pile of mush for much of the proceedings, and recommends that those sensitive souls who cry at movies bring plenty of tissues, or at least to make sure that their husbands are wearing moisture-absorbent shirts.

For my part, I’m going to say that this is a very flawed movie that nonetheless should be a must-see for all of us. I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, but until we finally head out that way, this is going to serve as the next-best experience. Perhaps some bright director someday will make a movie about the Arizona, which I would see in a heartbeat. Until then, Pearl Harbor, for all its faults, will have to do as the movie of record for one of America’s defining moments.

WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling battle scenes. Ben Affleck isn’t half-bad (damned by faint praise, I know). Exceedingly patriotic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary love triangle detracts from the drama. A good 45-60 minutes too long. Stretches disbelief a bit too far.

FAMILY MATTERS: War violence, some disturbing images of the wounded, a fair bit of foul language and an even smaller bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rafe is based loosely on actual fighter pilot Joe Foss whom Bay interviewed prior to shooting the film. Rafe’s speech about the plane being an extension of his body was taken nearly verbatim from that interview.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The 60th Anniversary edition (of the attack not the film) as well as the Blu-Ray edition includes a History Channel documentary on the attack and a music video by Faith Hill. The four-disc Vista edition includes these, another History Channel documentary on the Doolittle raid, footage of a boot camp the actors all undertook, an interactive version of the attack sequence from several different angles and a choice of different audio tracks, a hidden gag reel as well as a collector’s booklet and poster art cards.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $449.2M on a $140M production budget; against all odds the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Titanic

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Somewhere